The Service Employees International Union never has been bashful about making a point. A little more than two decades ago, then-President John Sweeney, along with top aide Andrew Stern, hit upon an ingenious idea for organizing hotel and office building employees. The campaign would be called “Justice for Janitors.” First in Denver, and then in other U.S. cities, SEIU workers and other demonstrators would rattle noisemakers at ear-splitting volume, chant, shout, and block sidewalk and/or street traffic in a coordinated effort to persuade building subcontractors to recognize the union and negotiate higher wages and benefits. It generated a lot of attention, but more importantly, victories; intimidated subcontractors typically gave into union demands. Thanks in large measure to Justice for Janitors, the Service Employees have boosted their ranks – now up to around 1.8 million – while membership in most other unions either has stagnated or declined. The campaign also helped propel Stern to the union presidency following Sweeney’s election as AFL-CIO president in the fall of 1995. A decade later Stern would pull his union out of the AFL-CIO and launch his own federation, Change to Win.
With less bombast, the union also has been busy building a political network with government officials, community groups, civil-rights groups and clergy. A company unwilling to negotiate with the Service Employees can count on payback from the union and its progressive network. Los Angeles provides a good example of behind-the-scenes wrath. A Justice for Janitors strike in that city back in April 2000 had been a success, inducing cleaning companies to recognize the union and give members a raise of 25 percent plus full health benefits. It also led to a National Labor Relations Board complaint against the coercive behavior of SEIU Local 1877, resulting in awards to a pair of nonunion workers at L.A. International Airport. SEIU campaigning also has extended to security contractors, most of all Wackenhut. This May, city officials decided not to renew an expiring three-year, $14.2 million contract with the Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.-based firm, thanks in large part to union persuasion. At least that’s what the company is alleging in a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
The suit doesn’t name the Service Employees as a defendant. But its wording makes clear the SEIU was an active partner in the City’s decision to terminate its relationship. “The SEIU continues to interfere in competitively bid public contracts…demand[ing] that Wackenhut be deemed ‘non-responsible,’” the complaint read in part. As for the local government, it “abused its discretion by treating Wackenhut materially differently from the other bidders,” placing it at a “competitive disadvantage.” The union, which counts some 50,000 security guards as dues-paying members, very likely played a major role in all this. Back in March, labor leaders, clergy and other social activists wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Department of Public Works claiming Wackenhut was not qualified as a city contractor. Los Angeles’s responsible-contractor policy requires that all companies with whom it does business maintain “satisfactory performance.” That includes any work done for other governments, domestic or foreign.
Local officials apparently obliged the activists. In April, Wackenhut charges, the City downgraded the company’s initial compliance score for purposes of competitive bidding. A main basis for doing so was Wackenhut’s answers to a routine series of final-round questions about labor relations and performance history. Wackenhut gave some wrong answers – wrong enough anyway to trigger a city investigation of its operations. The Public Works Department eventually awarded the work to three other companies. Only one of these companies, Securitas, oddly enough, has recognized a new SEIU security guard local, and even here only for commercial, not public-sector contracting. Quite obviously, Wackenhut’s alleged hostility toward unions isn’t the main factor at work, if it is a factor at all.
Opponents of Wackenhut point to what they see as the company’s subpar performance, relying on outside as well as local evidence. The firm makes for a large target, no question about it. Since 2004, Wackenhut has received about $1.3 billion in federal contracts to guard nuclear weapons, military bases, Department of Homeland Security sites and other facilities. This July, the House subcommittee on government management, organization and procurement heard testimony alleging the contractor had been responsible for lapses in labor relations and performance. One former Wackenhut employee testified that the company failed to provide guards with adequate training or equipment. The most damaging charges, though not verified, revolve around race. A delegation of labor and human rights activists visited Africa in April – i.e., the month before the City of Los Angeles’s decision not to renew Wackenhut’s contract – to investigate the work of Wackenhut’s British-based parent company, Group 4 Securicor (G4S). They heard allegations that G4S managers referred to guards as “monkeys,” and required black and white guards to use separate toilets. The fact-finding delegation also reported that the company failed to pay overtime and back wages. But these charges, even if true, should not be used to tar the record of a subsidiary. Wackenhut no more has control over G4S than Pontiac has control over General Motors.
Lawrence Brede, a Wackenhut senior vice president, defends his company’s record. He testified that it had “consistently been awarded high performance ratings” during its more than 40 years as a federal contractor. But while the company stands on its record, Los Angeles city officials have mounted a counterattack. On July 27, the City filed a motion calling Wackenhut’s allegations false. An SEIU deputy director, Jono Shaffer, said he hadn’t seen the lawsuit. But this hasn’t been the first time in recent years his union has had Wackenhut in its sights. In 2006, Union Corruption Update reported on the SEIU campaign against the contractor, which included inventing or taking out of context any number of accusations. As for the firm being anti-union, several unions other than the SEIU represent Wackenhut guards. What appears to exercise the Service Employees is that it can’t coax an exclusive-representation agreement out of the company. In the universe of the SEIU, what counts most of all is membership growth. It’s up to Los Angeles County Superior Court to determine whether the union has been growing out of bounds. (Los Angeles Times, 7/30/07).