October 2, 2013
By Steven Wishnia
Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union is one of the few private-sector unions to gain members in the last decade. The local now has 145,000 members, more than twice what it had in 2006, and most of that growth has come from organizing, says spokesperson Michael Allen.
“Unless we’re organizing, we’re going backwards,” says vice-president Rob Hill, 32BJ’s organizing director.
Local 32BJ represents primarily property-service workers, such as cleaners, superintendents, doormen, janitors, and security guards. Most are in the Northeast, from Virginia to New Hampshire, with a few in Florida and slightly more than half in the New York City area. When the Boston-based Local 615 joined in August, it added 18,000 new members.
The local’s biggest current campaigns are organizing airport workers and security officers. It began organizing security guards after the 9/11 attacks, says Hill, when it realized that the people who are “the first line of defense” weren’t making much more than minimum wage. Today, SEIU is the largest security union in the country, and 32BJ members in several East Coast cities earn about $14 an hour plus benefits, says Hill. It’s now well on its way to winning recognition from most of New Jersey’s security companies, he adds.
The airport campaign began last fall, when 300 security officers at New York’s JFK airport threatened to strike over safety concerns and asked 32BJ for help. They and baggage handlers, customer-service agents, cabin cleaners, and wheelchair attendants used to work directly for the airlines, but are now hired by contractors. About half of them make $8 an hour or less.
Dealing with contractors presents a dilemma, says Hill: They get work by being the lowest bidder, so if you organize just one company, “you’re basically setting yourself up to have that company thrown out. You’ve got to organize the whole industry or the whole market.” Ultimately, he adds, “we have to bring that fight back to the airline,” because they’re “making the decision to do this by low bid and forcing these guys to compete to the bottom.”
In the last year or two, he says, 32BJ has been trying to build a coalition with other low-wage workers, in fast food, car washes, and grocery stores. Organizing in the service sector, he adds, presents an opportunity, because “these jobs are not leaving. They’re not going to take the airport overseas, they’re not going to not have security in your building.”
“We know that workers acting together to fight for better wages and working conditions and the right to organizeare the key to shrinking the income gap threatening the nation’s economic stability,” says 32BJ President Héctor J. Figueroa. “Strong unions have always been correlated to a thriving middle class and income mobility. In addition to raising standards for the industries where we organize, when workers earn a living wage, they help to stimulate the local economy and strengthen their own communities.”