Twin Cities security officers vowed a fight to win, and the recent victory in the form of a renewed contract was well worth the fight.
Security companies settled a new contract on April 9, which was approved by members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26 on April 12. The contract includes access to affordable health insurance, higher wages, improved training and equipment, and sick leave.
It’s a five-year agreement with major differences from the preceding contract. Workers’ hourly wages will be increased by at least 50 cents every year. Health care costs for single employees will decrease from $190 per month down to $60. By the end of the five-year contract, coverage will be $20 per month. For employees with families, coverage will decrease some $570 per month and remain capped at $260 for the duration of the contract.
Health care was most important for security officer James Matthias. He’s the father of six children, including an eight-month old baby boy. He says the new coverage plan will help his family tremendously.
“We were going back and forth with medical assistance and struggling with one stipulation or the other,” said Matthias. At times, he and his wife exceeded calculated quarterly earnings and subsequently made “too much” to qualify for medical assistance. They were denied healthcare assistance because they may have worked overtime or picked up extra shifts to make ends meet.
“The children have been covered on and off, but we’ve had to make the decision to go without,” Matthias said about health benefits for him and his wife.
The security industry has not been the most attractive option for those looking to make lots of money. I asked Matthias why, as a man struggling to support his family, he stuck with the job in the midst of uncertainty concerning adequate benefits?
“I thought it was time for a change,” he replied. “For the past 10 years, they have taken security [for granted] and disregarded the importance of what we do. I knew that if I stuck it out, there would be some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. So, I worked with [the system] as best I could. I thought that if I didn’t, who would, and when?”
The will for these security officers to maintain their struggle came not only from within themselves, but from the support of the surrounding community. City council members, Twin Cities mayors, state representatives, political candidates, and even clergy from interfaith coalitions all rallied support for the officers.
“Everything played a significant role,” said Renita Wicker, who was on the SEIU bargaining committee. “They needed to know and see and be aware that this was a serious matter and that we had set out to accomplish our goals,” she said.
Matthias said the additional support showed that others outside of the union cared about the issues of working people. “When they backed our cause, security companies could see that it wasn’t just us, but [now] the entire community could see the downfalls of the industry,” he said.
Matthias also acknowledged the benefits of the broader community’s active presence: “They went a step forward and [demonstrated] with us; they were present, and it wasn’t about being trendy. Because of their dedication, [our employers] knew we weren’t going away,” he said.
Another issue on the table during contract negotiations was the issue of respect. Security guards felt that because they weren’t being offered livable wages and affordable health care, their hard work on the job was not being appropriately compensated.
Matthias says it’s a bit early to tell if they have won the respect they deserve, but it remains a work in progress. “At least the 401k [a valued provision of the new contract] shows that we are important enough to be invested in,” he said.
“The respect is there,” he noted, “but it will take a little more time for them to see how serious we are about the job, that we have individuals here for the long haul. They need to realize who they have working for them.”
Similarly, Wicker says companies need to respect the industry for what it’s worth. “We play a major role on the job site. We are first responders,” she said.
Matthias believes the industry has become more attractive as a job option because of the health benefits plan. “The pay is not as competitive, but there are still perks,” he said.
He enjoys the community aspect of his job the most. “I meet new people all the time,” he said while giving direction to folks entering the 1st National Bank building in downtown St. Paul. “And, it’s comfortable because my coworkers know me and they live in my community,” he added.
Looking forward, workers are anticipating a growing, more lucrative industry. “I’m looking forward to it being an industry that constantly attracts, instead of one that’s well-paying with lots of turnovers,” said Wicker. “It’s great now, but we’re on the path to get better, as we’ll see in the next five years,” said Matthias.
Now that a contract has been settled, the work of the union is to help attain affordable health care for everyone. There are still security officers out there without adequate benefits and working families who stood in solidarity with SEIU who continue to fight.
Coming: The struggle is not over for some security guards as non-union security companies punish union activity.
Lauretta Dawolo Towns welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.