The Service Employee International Union's nationwide strategy of targeting an industry, rather than a specific company, in order to unionize workers has proven successful in Los Angeles.

The SEIU and the Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater Los Angeles last week reached a tentative agreement that will allow security guards in L.A.'s largest buildings to unionize.

The deal outlines a process for more than 5,000 guards to choose whether or not to form an SEIU-backed local. It comes after a four-year campaign by SEIU and local activists to unionize the guards, who work for some of the region's biggest security firms.

The union maintains that by trying to unionize entire industries, rather than a single company, the impact of increased wages and benefits is shared by the sector.

The first victory of the L.A. campaign came in April, when Maguire Properties Inc., the largest commercial building owner in downtown L.A., agreed to let guards in its buildings form a union under the SEIU umbrella.

City leaders including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who brokered the McGuire deal have spun the issue from a security angle.

City Council President Eric Garcetti and two other members of the council proposed an ordinance requiring benefits and wage improvement for guards at high-traffic buildings because high turnover in the work force constituted a security risk.

An earlier study by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy found that in 37 of the city's large offices, guards had an annual turnover rate of 60 percent to 243 percent.

Already, SEIU has unionized guards who work for major contractors like Universal Protection Service, ABM, Securitas and AlliedBarton in buildings owned or managed by BOMA-member companies in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

David Sears, regional vice-president at JPMorgan Asset Management and chair of BOMA's Security Guards Unionization Committee, represented the management.

"We are not binding anybody to anything," stressed Martha Cox-Nitikman, acting executive director of BOMA-GLA. "The agreement just provides a framework. After all, the building owners have contractors and the contractors are the ones who employ the guards. If, down the road, we have a collective bargaining agreement, then that would be definitive."

The guards are 70 percent African American, according to SEIU, and a group of black clergy and community activists figured prominently in the unionization campaign.

"While building owners have acceded to union representation for their primarily Latino janitorial workforce and their largely Anglo engineering workforce, they are opposing union representation for security officers," according to the Web site for the group, called the Stand for Security Coalition.

Under terms of the agreement, guards in Los Angeles will choose or decline to create a union without interference from management or labor organizers. If the majority of security guards at a particular company vote to form a union, the company will recognize SEIU as the guards' collective bargaining agent.

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