It was a clear victory for organized labor and could be a sign of more to come.


After years of opposition, commercial building owners and several big security guard contractors last week agreed to let the Service Employees International Union organize up to 5,000 security guards at Los Angeles County's major commercial buildings.


The agreement among the Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater Los Angeles which represents most of the commercial building owners in Los Angeles five major security guard contracting firms and the SEIU ends a seven-year campaign to force the building owners to drop their opposition to the union's organizing efforts.


"The owners of the larger office buildings in Los Angeles have said, 'We're not going to resist this,'" said Martha Cox-Nitikman, senior director of government and public affairs for the L.A. chapter of the building owners' association. "We've agreed to be neutral and to facilitate the negotiations."


The landmark agreement applies to security guards working in hundreds of office buildings throughout the county that exceed 75,000 square feet. High concentrations of these buildings exist in downtown Los Angeles, Warner Center, Burbank/Glendale, Westwood, Century City and Long Beach.


Essentially, the agreement allows the SEIU to sign up security guards into the union without significant opposition from building owners or contractors; if a majority of security guards working for the five signatory contractors agree, then the union plans to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with the contractors individually but at the same time.


Moreover, the SEIU said it won't stop; the union plans to launch an effort later this year to reach agreements with owners of hospitals, shopping malls and other major buildings to organize thousands of security guards working in those buildings.


"This is part of our campaign to unionize all of the 10,000 or so private, unarmed security guard officers in L.A. County," said Terence Long, spokesman for SEIU Local 2006, the newly-formed Security Officers United local.


Assuming that the SEIU can unionize most of these buildings, the impact could ripple through the local office market.


"Whenever a union comes in, there's an upward bias in the cost structure of a business," said Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. "In the case of building owners, presumably they will pass the higher costs on in the form of higher lease rates for tenants."


This could hit office tenants hard, he added, especially on the Westside of Los Angeles, where lease rates are already high.


Challenges ahead


But if the battle for the so-called neutrality agreement is any indication, this broader effort isn't going to be easy for the union. After its successful "Justice for Janitors" campaign in the 1990s to unionize janitors at major commercial office buildings, the SEIU believed it had momentum in its favor when it launched the security guards campaign in 1999.


For six years, though, building owners and the security guard contractors they hired held firm in the face of periodic rallies and increasing pressure from community leaders and elected officials. Indeed, at the end of 2005, the L.A. City Council passed an ordinance requiring extensive training for security guards in a bid to encourage commercial building owners to invest more in their security operations.


The big break came last April when maverick developer Robert Maguire, the largest commercial building owner in downtown Los Angeles, broke ranks with his fellow building owners and agreed to let the SEIU attempt to organize security guards in his buildings. Then newly-elected Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa helped broker that agreement.


For Maguire, one of the key breakthroughs was the SEIU agreeing to set up a separate union local for the security guards. That alleviated concerns about sympathy strikes in the event either janitors or security guards walked off the job. Such a sympathy strike could cripple building operations and cause major economic disruptions.


With Maguire dropping his opposition to the union, it was only a matter of time until the rest of the building owners followed suit, agreement participants and observers said.


Hammering out a broader agreement still took months, and the sympathy strike issue remained a major concern for building owners. Only after assurances were given that there would be "no sympathy strike" clauses in any subsequent collective bargaining agreements did the owners agree, Cox-Nitikman said.


Simultaneously, the five security guard contractors reached their own neutrality agreement with the new SEIU local. The five security guard contractors are: Securitas Security Services USA of Parsippany, N.J. (a unit of Stockholm, Sweden-based Securitas A.B.); Santa Ana-based Universal Protection Service; American Commercial Security Services, a unit of San Francisco-based American Building Maintenance Industries Inc.; El Monte-based Guard Systems Inc.; and Allied-Barton Security Services, an affiliate of King of Prussia, Pa.-based Allied Security LLC.


These five firms hired Sacramento attorney Robert Rediger, who had recently negotiated a collective bargaining agreement between six security guard contracts and the SEIU in San Francisco, to represent them in their negotiations.


"The goal was to preserve labor peace," Rediger said. "The contractors wanted an alternative where employees can choose to select or not select a union, with safeguards to protect employees in the process from abuse from either side."


Some of those concerns still exist among the security guards themselves, despite the agreement.


"We think that some of the building managers will insist that this (signing up with the union) be done offsite or not during work hours, which is really difficult," said Juanita Burroughs, a security guard officer who works at the Bank of America Tower in downtown Los Angeles.


For Burroughs, who makes $8.50 an hour and has no health benefits, the agreement isn't just about higher wages and benefits. It's also about job security.


"Right now, the management can transfer us to any building whenever they want," she said. "We hope that the (collective bargaining) agreement will limit this."


Meanwhile, not every local economist expressed concern that the labor pact would hurt the L.A. economy.


With the median wage for security guards in 2005 about $20,000 a year, Daniel Flaming, president of the Economic Roundtable in Los Angeles said the pact would boost purchasing power for workers.


"This step is very encouraging for organized labor in Los Angeles," said Flaming, who added the pact also would go some way towards reducing the wage discrepancy between professionals in the buildings and workers who service them.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.