Editor's Note: This story has been updated from the version originally posted. That version incorrectly stated that a proposal before the Los Angeles City Council would require building owners to allow security guards to unionize in their buildings. The proposal actually would require guards to receive training and minimum health benefits, which the authors believe could encourage unionization.

Following developer Robert Maguire's agreement last week to allow security guards to unionize in his downtown high-rises, two L.A. City Councilmen are forging ahead with a proposal intended to push other building owners to do the same.

L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti and Councilman Jack Weiss say they welcome last week's agreement between downtown L.A.'s largest landlord and the Service Employees International Union. The proposed ordinance would prompt similar agreements at other commercial buildings because it would require more training and potentially better benefits for security guards in a post 9/11 world.

But some business groups say it's inappropriate for the city to push unionization of private sector workforces.

"Proponents of this measure in the city may say this is all about public safety and having well-trained people in these positions, but the city appears to be coming down on the side of pushing a union agenda," said Ron Gastelum, executive vice president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. "Where's the line here? The city could regulate the entire economy on the basis of health and public safety concerns."

Gastelum added that the ordinance could prove counterproductive if it makes it too costly for building owners and security contractors to hire more guards.

The measure has elicited similar concerns from City Councilman Greig Smith, who said he would vote against any ordinance that mandates health benefit payouts or other compensation to privately employed security guards.

"That's not the responsibility of the city," Smith said. "Yes, since 9/11, we do have an interest in protecting people against an attack. So we should establish basic terrorism response standards, like evacuation procedures, CPR training, etc But that's where the line should be drawn."

But the councilmen indicated they'll move forward with their proposal which will require the owners of hundreds of major buildings in the city and the security companies they contract with to provide beefed-up emergency response training and minimum levels of health care benefits for the city's 10,000 private security guards.

"The announcement by Rob Maguire was very much brought about by the context of our pushing for a 'safe and secure' ordinance," said Josh Kamensky, spokesman for Garcetti. "We've seen some great results and now we'd like to see the security guards in the rest of the city's major buildings given the same opportunities that those in Rob Maguire's buildings are getting."

More training
While details of the Garcetti-Weiss proposal are still being worked out by city staff workers and the City Attorney's Office, it will likely include mandated emergency response training for many security guards in major buildings. It may also include requirements that building owners or security guard contractors provide minimum levels of health benefits to security guards.

At this time, the proposal does not include language to consider raising the pay of security guards, which currently ranges from a low of about $8 an hour to $11 to $12 an hour. Guards in Maguire's buildings earn about $10.50 an hour.

The proposal would apply to buildings above a certain threshold of tenant workers at level that has yet to be determined. Whatever target is adopted, it will almost certainly include hundreds of commercial office buildings in downtown, Century City, Westwood, along Ventura Boulevard and in Warner Center.

In announcing their motion, Garcetti and Weiss said that a voluntary training program enacted by the Building Owners and Managers Association last year was "inadequate" since it did not address the issue of turnover caused by low pay and a lack of benefits among security guards at many office towers.

Since the terrorist attacks of 2001 focused attention on building security, the SEIU has sought to frame its effort to raise pay for guards as a matter of national security, arguing that low pay and a lack of benefits is fueling high levels of guard turnover.

"Without reducing turnover, you cannot have emergency preparedness," said Eddie Iny, assistant director for property services with SEIU Local 1877. "There's little use for training security guards if the moment the training is finished, they leave for a job with better pay and benefits."

Building owners and security guard firms have acknowledged that more could be done to boost security, but maintain they should be allowed to take voluntary steps.

"We support increased training for security officers. Nobody supports better training for security officers more than private security officers," said Jeff Flint, association manager for the California Association of Licensed Security Agencies, Guards and Associates.

In late 2004, the SEIU and city Councilwoman Jan Perry worked to put forward an ordinance requiring building owners and security contractors to provide more training and better working conditions for building guards.

But the ordinance met with resistance from the building owners association, which argued for a voluntary approach. City police and fire officials also voiced concern that their resources would be strained by providing training certification for private security guards. There were also some concerns that state or federal law might pre-empt any attempt by the city to set training or health benefit standards for private sector workers.

"At that point, I figured the best course was to try a voluntary approach," Perry said last week.

Exceeding requirements
The building owners association and the association of licensed security agencies came up with just such a program last summer, agreeing to provide at least eight hours of training beyond the 40 hours already required by a two-year-old state law.

"We believe we have a fine certification program that determines the kind of training security guards in our downtown buildings should have," said Barbara Harris, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the owners association. "We believe we have achieved a level of education way beyond that which the state of California requires."

But union officials viewed this as a way to head off a more stringent mandatory program. Also, they said it did not address the issue of security guard turnover, which was at the core of their three-year campaign to unionize the industry.

SEIU officials kept the pressure on city councilmembers especially one of their allies, Garcetti to develop a mandatory program. Garcetti and Weiss unveiled their proposal on April 7. Besides mandating training programs and health benefits to reduce security guard turnover, the proposal would require building owners to file periodic reports with the city detailing the training and turnover rates.

The proposal also would set up civil and criminal penalties for building owners and/or security contractors that do not comply.

However, building owners and security guard firms say they doubt the city had the authority to mandate training programs and health benefit levels for private sector companies that do not do direct business with the city.

"We believe that the state law setting up the training programs pre-empt anything the city would try to impose," Flint said.

Those concerns are now being addressed by the City Attorney's Office, which must report back to the Council by May 7.

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