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Should a teenager who flips burgers at a fast-food joint earn the same wage as a security guard who patrols a skyscraper?

That, in effect, was the rhetorical question posed by a group of local clergy leaders, City Councilmembers, and dozens of uniformed private security guards who marched to City Hall last week to call for better pay and training for security guards in New York, some of whom make as little as $9 an hour.

The May 16 rally was just the latest public event organized by SEIU Local 32BJ, the union representing building services workers of all kinds, which has carried on a two-year campaign to unionize private security officers in New York and several other cities. Organizers held up this most recent rally as a “major step forward” because of the contingent of guards involved and a written statement of support issued by Mayor Bloomberg the same day.

Saying guards “must be trained in the latest procedures and offered fair compensation,” Bloomberg urged building owners and large tenants to “take concrete steps to professionalize their private security forces,” though he has not articulated what those concrete steps might be. “We’ll leave that for the relevant parties to decide,” said Bloomberg spokesman Jason Post. Although Local 32BJ would like to see security guards receive more training, family health benefits, and a boost of “a few dollars per hour” in wages, according to Local 32BJ spokesman Matthew Nerzig, it too has stopped short of listing specific benchmarks.

The union, which represents about one-tenth of the more than 60,000 guards in New York City’s private security workforce, has drawn attention for some time to the civil rights aspects of the pay and benefits typical in the industry: most security guards are African-American, the union has noted repeatedly, and a rally in 2005 featured African-American leaders such as the president of the New York state NAACP – but last week’s rally seemed to signal a renewed emphasis on the homeland security dimension of the issue.

A “Safe City Pledge” signed by the assembled clergy highlighted the role of security guards, saying that in “the post 9/11 world … security guards are our first responders.” A letter sent by the clergy to the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), a trade association representing building owners and management companies, also picked up the theme. “Although heightened security demands since 9/11 have increased the responsibility and demands on security officers, they are still making poverty-like wages and receiving insufficient training to defend our city,” read the letter, which asked REBNY to endorse increased wages and training.

“Six years after 9/11, the real estate industry has done surprisingly little to raise standards in the industry,” says Nerzig, invoking the terror attacks once again.

Robert McCrie, a professor of security management at John Jay College of Justice, tends to agree with Local 32BJ that current industry standards are inadequate. “Security guards are underpaid relative to their responsibilities,” he says, adding that, while New York City currently requires private security guards to complete 24 hours of initial training (additional hours are required for guards who carry side arms), “a full week of training is not too much to request, given the responsibilities that security officers have.”

REBNY, for its part, responded by characterizing the rally as “an attempt to perpetuate false and misleading information,” and cited results from a recent in-house survey that found that guards employed by its members earn an average of $11 to $14 an hour; that 95 percent of guards receive health coverage and paid vacation; and that all of the 220 buildings surveyed participate in NYPD Shield, a city-run counterterrorism program in which police train private-sector guards and exchange information with them. The rally, the board’s statement concluded, was “more about union organizing than social justice.”

Nerzig disputes the industry group’s claims about health care, calling them “misleading” in their own right. While most guards may be offered health coverage, he says “hardly any” actually have it because they can’t cover the cost.

The letter sent to REBNY omitted any reference to union activity, but organizers clearly saw the rally as part of the larger Local 32BJ campaign. Rabbi Michael Feinberg, the executive director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, who has been involved in the campaign from early on and has helped build the clergy support, calls the campaign “one of the biggest organizing drives in this city in many years” and has identified it as a priority for his own organization.

Private security guards “show up the divide in New York in wealth and wages as few other groups of workers do,” says Feinberg. “They’re working in some of the most powerful financial, cultural, and other institutions in the city at poverty wages, and with no benefits. It really highlights all of the disparities of the economy – who it works for and who it doesn’t work for.”

Two years in, the union shows no signs of dialing back the campaign. “We think there’s a lot of momentum, and we’ll certainly continue,” says Nerzig. “The key thing is to get more and more players to be responsible, to the point that we have raised industry standards across the industry…. Marches, rallies, letters—all of these things will continue.”

– Ray Hainer

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