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Bronx husband and father Vincent Morales, 36, says the terrorist attacks of 9/11 inspired him to resign from his job as a doorman at Sotheby’s auction house and become a security guard. Smoothing down the blue blazer of the uniform he wears to work at the Empire State Building, he said, “I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to become part of the city’s eyes and ears.”

Now that he is an official watcher and listener at the city’s tallest building, he tries to recall that original inspiration every time he gets frustrated with his new job. It didn’t take long for him to come to think that being one of New York City’s approximately 63,000 security guards comes with more negatives than positives: low pay, few benefits and marginal training.

That’s why he is part of the effort to unionize the nearly 100 security guards at the Empire State Building (ESB). After a full year of attempts to negotiate with management, SEIU Local 32BJ finds itself at a standoff with building owners, though determined to keep fighting. Due to increased recognition of security guards’ role post-9/11, a growing number of civic leaders are taking up the guards’ cause, bolstered by studies showing that guards’ conditions are not conducive to real protection of such a landmark tower — or any building — not to mention the people inside.

SEIU Local 32BJ, the largest property services workers’ union in the country, is campaigning to unionize security guards around New York City and in other major cities. The union, representing janitors and doormen along with guards, began its efforts about two years ago in NYC, where it already represents about 4,000 guards among 60,000 property service workers total. When offers to talk didn’t get anywhere, protests and civil disobedience actions erupted at the building this May. Since then, numerous rallies have been organized by union officials, security guards, community activists and elected officials banding together to call for the building’s administration to support the union.

Copstat, the company that provides guards to the ESB, would not comment and referred City Limits to the building owners. Peter L. Malkin, chairman of Wien & Malkin and one of the principal owners of the Empire State Building, has refused to meet with the union. A building spokesperson from Rubenstein Public Relations issued a written statement saying, “SEIU Local 32BJ is in the middle of a union organizing drive and is, regrettably, unfairly targeting the Empire State Building in its public relations efforts related thereto.”

But to Morales, the inadequate training, no health insurance or days off, and $10 per hour pay when the metropolitan area’s median is $18.39 has nothing to do with public relations. “We were never even taught how to use X-ray detectors,” he remembers with a laugh. “We were just told to watch out for something that looked a little suspicious.” Morales is usually posted on the building’s first or second floor, guarding the turnstiles and screening the handbags and packages brought into the building.

Rubenstein Public Relations also firmly denounced allegations of poor training. “Members of the building’s security staff are trained professionals whose qualifications exceed New York State standards for security personnel, including staff members with extensive law enforcement background,” read its statement.

Gerard Kane, managing director of Excel Security Corporation, which provides security guards to more than 200 buildings in Manhattan, says good training and supervision are key to quality guard service. He was in the ESB just a few days ago and said the staff seemed professional.

“I was impressed by all of them. I thought these guys were on their game,” Kane said. His guards at Excel are paid $9 to $16 an hour, depending on experience. “The bottom line is, a security guard in a building is an entry-level job,” he said. Along with rising energy costs, guard pay is a factor in landlords’ tight operating margin, he noted.

Standard training for NYC guards includes an initial 27-hour course, an additional 16 hours of training in the first year, and an eight-hour course each year after that, Kane said.

Recent studies provide support to claims that guards’ conditions may not work in the public’s interest. This May, the Community Service Society published a report titled “Shortchanging Security,” which looked at how poor working conditions for security guards affect public safety. The report compared unionized security guards with non-union guards and concluded that morale and performance was markedly lower among the latter. Such factors have led to an annual turnover of 300 percent among security guards nationwide.

To Rabbi Michael Feinberg, executive director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, a lack of interest in providing training to guards is related to a lack of interest in the welfare of the guards themselves. “These people are amongst the most exploited and excluded workers in the country,” said Feinberg, whose coalition is involved in the unionization efforts. “They work full-time yet live in chronic poverty.”

SEIU Local 32BJ spokesman Matthew Nerzig says the union was expecting a struggle but is still shocked by the attitude of the building. “Considering that this issue involves public security, it is alarming to realize that the safety of New York doesn’t seem a priority for the private sector,” he said.

The union’s luck has been mixed, but is now negotiating a labor contract with Burns International Security Services in New York City. Last December, 1,100 security officers at such places as CUNY, Yeshiva University, New York Methodist Hospital, AT&T and Pfizer.

Elected officials are getting behind the guards: in April Mayor Bloomberg endorsed a union-funded training program, and in May Assemblyman Joseph Lentol (D-North Brooklyn) called for hearings in Albany about the effect of low wages, high turnover and poor training in the private security industry. The same month, Bronx City Councilmember Annabel Palma was arrested for civil disobedience for participating in a rally at the ESB. Earlier this spring, Jesse Jackson and others petitioned 13 major New York corporations to raise guards’ pay.

Robert McCrie, professor of security management at John Jay College, says that organizing guards at the Empire State Building would be a symbolic victory for the union. “This building is one of the nation’s icons and a location that is attractive to terrorists,” he said. “It is a logical address for the union to concentrate on. If the owners of this building are successful in rebuffing the union, what does it say about their commitment to public safety? Not much.”

Numerous guards at the Empire State Building have told 32BJ about incidents of harassment at the hands of management. 32BJ’s Nerzig says guards are sometimes transferred or given fewer shifts once the management hears of their involvement with the union.

One ESB security guard, John Hyman, says he was unfairly transferred and has filed a complaint against Copstat with the National Labor Relations Board in April. It says the “employer has unlawfully retaliated against Hyman by transferring him out of the Empire State Building because he spoke at a rally sponsored by Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ during his off-duty hours.”

Vincent Morales says that since Hyman was transferred, most guards have become even more fearful of siding with the union. “People are scared,” he says. “They think what happened to Hyman could happen to them.”

But Morales says he isn’t willing to let such incidents keep him from supporting the union. “It’s about respect,” he says. “We must get the respect we deserve and this is only going to happen through the union.”

– Ayesha Akram

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