Inspired by Teachers and Janitors, Security Officers Take Fight to the Streets

Kari Lydersen

SEIU security officers get fired up for pending contract negotiations in Chicago. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

On Saturday, Chicago’s Teamster City thrummed with the sounds of a high school marching band, the young blues trio Jamiah On Fire” Rogers & the Red Machine and the loud cheers of SEIU Local 1 members as union security officers geared up for looming contract negotiations that they say will be about both workers’ rights and the city’s larger security situation. 

Many of SEIU Local 1’s 8,000 Chicago security officers make only $10 an hour, or about $20,000 a year, according to the union. (Working In These Times spoke with five security officers at the rally who make between $14 and $15 an hour.) Yet the downtown office and luxury residential buildings where they work house multinational companies and some of the city’s wealthiest residents and visitors.

We have low wage jobs, but we secure buildings for corporations making billions,” says Rita Young, a mother of five and grandmother of 13 who makes $11.05 an hour after years in the business. We are the first responders putting our lives on the line every day.”

We are the eyes and ears of the city,” security officer Derrick N. Mathis, 39, says.

SEIU Local 1 security officers’ citywide contract with the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago (BOMA) expires April 21, and negotiations for a new contract kick off April 4. Hence Saturday’s rally, which was meant to build enthusiasm around a campaign that will see security officers and their supporters taking to the streets,” as security officer Patrick Willingham told the several hundred members gathered at Teamster City.

You’ve all seen and heard about the teachers and the janitors making better wages and benefits,” Willingham said. You know why? They showed out in force in the streets. We security officers need to follow the example of our union brothers and union sisters.”

The union wants a wage increase along with improvements in working conditions and protection of their existing health care plan, explained SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff.

The union is also framing the security officers’ campaign in the context of Chicago’s internationally infamous gun violence and murder rate. The prevalence of illegal guns in Chicago presents a serious risk for security officers, many of whom are not armed themselves. And perhaps more significantly, the union says that most of the officers live on the South and West Ssides, mostly African-American neighborhoods where 80 percent of the city’s more than 500 murders occurred in 2012.

In other words, they spend their days providing security for wealthy employers in rich neighborhoods for low wages that contribute to them living in a constant state of insecurity at home.

We put our lives in jeopardy every time we come to our buildings, we’re the first line of defense,” security officer Jimmy Felton says. On a daily basis we have to confront individuals who are intoxicated, individuals who are angry and upset, individuals who have mental issues or are having personal problems. You have no control over any individual who enters your building; everyone is a potential threat.”

The union’s Stand for Security campaign has also embraced the fight against gun violence, with members circulating petitions that call for renewing the assault weapons ban, outlawing high-capacity magazines, instating universal background checks and increasing penalties for illegal firearms. Robin Kelly, the Democratic Congressional candidate seeking the seat vacated by former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., spoke in support of the security officers at a press conference before the convention. Gun control has been a key tenet of Kelly’s campaign, and Balanoff also described her as a long-time supporter of labor rights.

Security officers at the convention say they also want the new contract to address other health and safety issues.

A lot of our members are standing eight hours a day,” says Felton, 56, who has worked in security for 11 years at exclusive downtown business and residential buildings that are home to movie actors, professional athletes, business professionals.”

We are trying to convince management they can be effective sitting on a stool or chair,” Felton said. And, he added, officers also want longer breaks; he says some work a full-day with only a 10-minute break.

Williamson, 40, says that officers working night shifts are also often very cold, since companies want to preserve their energy, and turn their heat down.”

In Chicago, only about 100 security officers are non-union; buildings that are part of the BOMA are all covered by the SEIU contract. Chicago suburban security officers are also covered by SEIU Local 1 contracts; their negotiations also start later this spring.

At the podium adorned with purple and yellow balloons and signs, a security officer from Detroit spoke of an ongoing organizing campaign in her city. After 12 years on the job she makes only $8 an hour, and can’t afford to go to the doctor or even buy school pictures for her kids.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think these should be poverty wage jobs,” she told the crowd.

Keith Kelleher, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas pledged the support of the 90,000 healthcare workers he represents. He noted that security officers are impacted by the city’s notorious gang problem.

And today,” Kelleher told the crowd, we’re fighting one of the worst gangs you’ll find in Chicago: the corporations who aren’t paying you a living wage.”

The union will hold a rally at Chicago’s Thompson Center on April 4 at 3:30 p.m.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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