It's taken four years and a lot of work for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to get a contract in downtown Seattle that covers five security firms and about 750 guards.
But there, in midst of the gleaming buildings that the guards protect, stands a City Hall that makes some union members wince: The city is close to signing a $1.3 million-a-year contract with a non-union security contractor, they say, that the city has favored in the bidding -- a claim the city rejects.
Since 1990, the city has renewed a series of five-year contracts with Tukwila-based Olympic Security for the City Hall campus, which now includes the Seattle Justice Center, the Municipal Tower and a garage, where the company employs about 35 guards today. When the city put a new contract out for bid in December, SEIU staff say, it called for a vendor with experience in a single building or campus of at least one million square feet that's at least half-occupied by government tenants.
The only office campus meeting that description in Seattle is the City Hall complex, says Sergio Salinas, president of SEIU Local 6, which made Olympic the only company that could win the contract, which it did on Feb. 20.
"The problem with this contract," Salinas says, "is that it was designed in a way that [would] provide the incumbent contractor the ability to retain the contract."
What's more, he says, the contract requires the winning bidder to submit a "labor harmony" agreement that will cut against SEIU's renewed efforts to unionize Olympic by prohibiting any picketing or rallies at City Hall.
Not so, says Katherine Schubert-Knapp, a spokesperson for the city's Executive Administration and Fleets and Facilities departments. While the labor harmony agreement that the city is seeking would prohibit strikes, lockouts and other labor disruptions, such an agreement, she says, requires the successful bidder to talk with a prospective union -- providing the union notifies the company in writing of its intent to represent the workers.
She also points out that the city changed the criteria of its original request for proposals in response to comments from potential bidders. On Jan. 9, the city issued an amendment that opened the contract to security firms with experience in buildings or campuses of 300,000 square feet and added four days to the original deadline of Jan. 12.
Olympic was the successful bidder, she says, because its overall scores topped three competitors, including offering its employees the most favorable compensation and benefits of the contenders. Anyone who disagreed with the scoring, she said, had a right to appeal, but no one did.
"It's not unusual for RFPs [request for proposals] to be amended following a comment period," Schubert-Knapp says. But this one was amended, in part, "to expand the pool of potential responders."
Salinas agrees the issue isn't money. In the master contract that Local 6 has with five security firms in downtown Seattle, the union's starting wage in large office buildings is currently $12.10 an hour, whereas the city requires a prevailing wage that's slightly higher, he says. But Salinas questions the example the city is setting. In the past, he says, Mayor Greg Nickels has stated that he wanted to help SEIU improve conditions for security guards.
"If the city doesn't support the effort to raise the standard for security guards and make it a profession," Salinas asks, "what would you expect from other organizations that are not as progressive as the city?"
Schubert-Knapp responds that the city can't play favorites: It's prohibited from awarding or not awarding contracts based on union status under the National Labor Relations Act.
"I have been told numerous times by people [at the city] that they have to be very fair and not show bias in any shape or form," says Mark Vinson, president of Olympic Security. "They've stressed that I couldn't tell you how many times."
If his workers want a union, Vinson adds, they're entitled to form one -- that's the law, he says. Olympic has 45 days from the date of winning the bid, or until April 24, to conclude a labor harmony agreement, but, so far, SEIU has made no effort to contact the company.
Olympic's unionized competitors are "pretty frustrated" with the city's choice, says Salinas, who adds that SEIU plans to restart an organizing drive among Olympic Security guards. "It only makes sense," he says, "that the contractor at the city campus be a unionized company."