All subjects of this interview work on campus at Union Theological Seminary as security workers of G4S, the company with which Union Theological Seminary (UTS) contracts. The morning and evening shifts are rotated by different G4S employees at the beginning of the semester at the entrance posts of the school. After about a month, students begin working occasional shifts. Most of the workers I spoke with wanted things such as union jobs for security and better pay. Most of the workers are African immigrants (six), and the rest are African-Americans (two), and there is one Latino worker.
W: “That’s why the money’s not guaranteed, it’s only for the moment.”
W started off by noting that G4S is non-union and that their workers get $12.88 an hour; and G4S pays you based on whatever they get from the client, in this case, UTS.
W told me that if you don’t want to/can’t see your family, you can work 80-100 hours a week getting overtime to make $1000 a week, but even then, he knew it wasn’t something he wanted to keep up, it was just a means to an end to save up. W did this for G4S at Citibank. It involved 10-12 hours a day standing on his feet – it wasn’t comfortable. His feet were swollen. It wasn’t normal either.
Yet he knew he had to endure this for a bit because he had a goal, to save money to buy land in Africa for his family. If they called him at 2am, 6am, he’d get up and go- he was a “FlexGuard” – flexible- he’d work any shift that they had. Knowing the work was only temporary, and drawing from his father’s work ethic, he went on like this–working long hours and taking whatever shifts he could get–for some time.
Basic things like health insurance were not guaranteed, W told me. It depends on what site G4S has contracts with. To the sites with the most benefits, people at G4S will “fight to get in there.” A former co-worker at UTS, N, left for a bank, which has Union 32BJ, because she was getting older. “I’m thinking same thing as she was, what if something happens to me?” W said, referring to G4S’s lack of benefits. There were no health benefits when he worked for them full-time (he now works for them part-time).
He was also concerned because there’s no guarantees for job security if something should happen to him. According to W, the important thing was whether G4S has a future with a client. “God forbid they start losing sites. Somebody else come over and they give the sites to somebody else, another security company. NYC’s all about competition. If another security company comes and tells them, ‘We got this offer for you,’ and it’s up to the client to decide whether they want to stay with G4S” or another competitor. That’s why the money’s not guaranteed, it’s only for the moment.” That’s why he prefers a city job- schools and police officers will always be there, no matter what.
A Washington Post article from 2007 confirms the competition among security firms: “The low pay reflects cutthroat competition among security firms, who submit the lowest possible bids to win contracts. Lowball contracts also mean lower profit margins and less money for training and background checks for guards.” Bank of America in New York City used to contract with Securitas Security Services USA, where its workers had been unionized since 2007. The worst fear W spoke of earlier came true for the security workers there in early 2010: suddenly, G4S was going to be their boss, and they were going to lose their benefit. Bank of America was ultimately “responsible for the contract” behind these changes:
In the merger transition, about 130 former Merrill Lynch security guards in December faced a steep increase in their health care benefits, leaving many unable to afford coverage, said Joe Eisman, organizing coordinator with a Service Employees International Union local. Another 30 lost their jobs. The changes came when guards were shifted to a security firm used by Bank of America, G4S Wackenhut, from a firm used by Merrill, Securitas.
In a statement, G4S Wackenhut said all officers were offered health benefits. The company said its family plan was more expensive than a union program but that its employee-only program was less expensive. Officers who lost their jobs either chose to leave on their own or didn’t meet necessary qualifications, the company said.
V: “[Y]our take-home pay has to be able to take you home.”
In two separate interviews on 10/29, I spoke with V and W, who both commented on how tough it was to be living paycheck to paycheck working for G4S.
V spoke about G4S in general terms, of how the people at the top in capitalism will make enough profit to invest in assets so that if they close their business, they have enough money to survive. Yet for the people on the bottom, he said it was a different story “because they’re living paycheck to paycheck.”
In general, he said that “your take-home pay has to be able to take you home.” W had said he was not happy with working with G4S because “you live paycheck to paycheck and what if something happens?” The lack of good pay and benefits, and thus the inability to build assets and provide a safety net, was a common theme.
D: “The pay rate depends on the site, on what they give.
D echoed statements that B had made, that the university had a direct role in the pay of G4S workers.
D: “This site pays $12.88. It doesn’t matter if you’re full time or part time […] The pay rate depends on the site, on what they give. The site. The site pretty much pays you what you get.”
Me: “They negotiate it with the site?”
D: “Yeah they negotiate it with the site, the contract and everything.”
D also spoke of the need to find a union job, as A had.
“Some sites offer unions, some sites don’t. Some offer benefits, some don’t offer all benefits. Bank of America, they’re unionized.” D stated that she wants to quit eventually, or at least find a site with a union. “If it was another site, it would have to be one that has a union. That way I could do regular morning shifts, come home and be with the kids.” Right now she gets by because her partner pools his money together with her.
Why a union?
“If anything was to happen. They can’t fire you” at the drop of a hat. A union will try and protect you. She said that when looking for job security, you can review how long a security company keeps its contracts, but “if you really want to” find job security, “get a city job, get a state job.”
Like A, she relies on Medicaid. She is on Medicaid’s Healthfirst Plan. Medicaid has plans with Healthfirst, MetroPlus, and FamilyPlus, and they are all branches under Medicaid in New York City.
I asked D whether they give raises at G4S. She said that she knew that retail and some city jobs did it like that, but she was unsure about G4S, but she “hop[ed] so.”
Y: “They don’t give a shit about anyone.“
Y’s interview would have dashed D’s hopes about the prospect for a raise.
“G4S is the worst company,” Y told me. “I’ve worked for them for five years. “
Echoing the conversations about the inability to build assets while living paycheck to paycheck, Y told me: “I make $12.88 an hour. I don’t make enough to save. Just enough for rent, for food, for [personal items]. I live in the Bronx. I work 40 hours a week. They don’t give me any health insurance or benefits.”
I asked him if he’s ever complained or negotiated with them.
“They don’t give a shit about anyone. I’ve asked them five times for a raise, and they haven’t given me one. They say, ‘we’ll think about it,’ and never get back to you.” It was then that Y spoke about what had felt like the elephant in the room to me: why did only people of color work for G4S? “Why do you think that they only hire Africans, or Black people, or Latinos? White people know too much. They don’t want people complaining.”
Each of those whom I interviewed noted that low wages meant living paycheck-to-paycheck, which translated into feelings of insecurity about their ability to respond to financial needs, such as emergencies. And one had mentioned the inability to build assets on such low-wages, which ends up hurting these individuals and society as a whole, who might benefit from the college degrees, small businesses, or investment in homeownership these G4S employees would be able to pursue if they could develop assets.
Security Workers Need to Be Able to Unionize
It wasn’t until 2008 that G4S signed a global agreement allowing workers the right to unionize. In December 2008, “here in the US, SEIU has been very active in the international campaign for justice for G4S workers. They also signed an agreement with G4S/Wackenhut to cover 38,000 US workers.” According to G4S’s website,
The Wackenhut Corporation (“G4S Wackenhut”) and the Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”) announced today they have reached an agreement that will allow G4S Wackenhut employees who work in the metropolitan areas in nine (9) cities to choose SEIU as its bargaining representative.
Since then, however, progress has been slow. As noted earlier, Bank of America is the only G4S union site in New York City, and it was not until 2013 that G4S Portland, Oregon was able to unionize with SEIU:
After a four-year campaign and nearly 10 months of bargaining, we did something that few believe we could do. We helped to change some of largest, international security companies in the world for the better,” said Donna Watkins-Neff a security officer with G4S Secure solutions in Downtown Portland. “Now officers in our industry have healthcare they can afford and a wage that they can live on. And with our union, we now have a partnership with these security companies that will allow us to continue making improvements.”
Security workers for commercial real estate companies under Realty Advisory Board who are lucky enough to have sites that involve SEIU have won a big gain just this year in May- guaranteed health coverage, more paid time off, and a $15.50 minimum wage. Imagine if SEIU was spread to all G4S sites so that their workers were able to partake in this boon of economic dignity and security?
In 2012, SEIU in hammered out agreements with the top private security companies, such as G4S, AlliedBarton, Securitas Security Services, and ABM, in D.C., NYC, and Philadelphia. In the Philadelphia agreement, there were wins such as health benefits offered to all full-time workers, and a timetable for wage increases (though the wages were paltry compared to the recent SEUI win with Realty Advisory Board- in Philadelphia, the minimum is currently $10.25 an hour).
That same year, Leroy Abramson, a security officer for Securitas at Morgan Stanley and an executive board member of 32BJ of SEIU, “was a member of the bargaining committee that negotiated a far-reaching settlement of the New York City Master Contract between private security officers at some of New York City’s leading commercial buildings and the nation’s top three security contractors, Allied Barton, Securitas and G4S, in the summer of 2012.” I was unable to find this agreement online, yet since G4S only has one union site, whatever benefits it has will not be felt until G4S proliferates the unionization of its workers.
Yet G4S also has a history of fighting unions- in March 2015, in Alberta, Canada, negotiations with UFCW stalled, so that outside meditation had to be called in. “The Union was disappointed with the hard line drawn by G4S so UFCW filed for mediation.” Not all the details were allowed to be given due to the cases’ confidentiality issues, but UFCW’s website was able to present the following outstanding issues:
>Job Classification and Pay Premiums
>Hours of Work and Overtime
>Callouts, Standby, Weekend Work, Split Shift
>General Holidays and Vacation Pay
>Health and Safety
>Absent from Work
>Clothing and Tools
>Transportation and Accommodation
To think that there are at least G4S sites that don’t have unions to have agreements on these issues, including guaranteeing these rights and protections, is disturbing. To know that Union Theological Seminary, and I’m sure countless other institutes of higher learning across the country, plays a role in this due to lack of unions means that accountability must be demanded. There is a need for UTS, and other institutions, to renegotiate its contract with G4S so that workers are not exploited.
First of all, SEIU (or other similar unions, though SEIU seems to be the only relevant one to security workers at the moment) should be allowed to unionize Union Theological Seminary’s workers, as well as the workers of all the consortium of colleges which UTS is a part of (Columbia, Barnard, etc.).
Secondly, the aforementioned agreement which SEIU made with real estate companies could act as a model for UTS’s employees: things such as guaranteed health coverage, more paid time off, and a $15.50 minimum wage. G4S, for its part, needs to not fight SEIU tooth and nail like it seems to be doing with UFCW, but that it would be best if it used the model forged by the Realty Advisory Board commitment. Though private security companies struggle to make good money, a $15.50 minimum wage for G4S could be aided by two things: If Union Theological Seminary renegotiates with G4S so that their workers can be paid more, and if G4S allows SEIU to unionize their workers.
As noted earlier, it is competition which drives down worker pay, and as the preamble to the Philadelphia agreement with G4S notes, “the Union and the Employers recognize that the single greatest threat to their continued success is the proliferation of non-union competition in the security industry.”
The SEIU apparently has already forged an agreement with the top competitive private security firms in New York City, so G4S will not be vulnerable to non-union competition. This means that G4S needs to allow for SEUI’s expansion, and institutes of higher learning like Union Theological Seminary need to make way for this union as well.
Shep Glennon is a social justice blogger who has published articles on subjects as diverse as austerity measures, religion, global politics, neurochemistry, American politics and ideology, and spirituality.