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Organizing Drive

The fastest growing sector of the U.S. labor movement has been immigrant workers. And the next frontier in that organizing effort is apparently mall workers — mainly janitors and security guards.

The Service Employees International Union has launched a major campaign to unionize the mall industry. It launched the effort in late May when it announced the formation of the National Committee for Justice for Mall Workers — modeled in part on its successful Justice for Janitors campaign that has organized janitors all over the country.

As part of its campaign, SEIU created a web site:, that features statistics and stories outlining its campaign to unionize the 70,000 janitors and security guards it says work in the nation's malls. According to SEIU's statistics, 95 percent of malls in the U.S. contract out cleaning and security to contractors, most of whom pay low wages and offer no benefits. It says 60 percent of retail workers do not have health insurance.

Charles Caulkin, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips, a labor employment law firm that represents businesses, says the industry has reason to be concerned. “What's interesting is that in the average mall we're only talking about between five and 20 workers and it's important for owners to realize that this union is not just looking at workplaces with big numbers,” Caulkin says. SEIU as part of the Change To Win coalition, which broke from the AFL-CIO last year, is focused on organizing workers.

“The method they are using is a corporate campaign threat and people will have to decide whether they play ball or else face the union going to union-friendly pension funds to get them to pull money out of your property,” Caulkin says.

SEIU has made a target of Simon Property Group, the nation's largest mall owner, mentioning the company prominently in literature they are producing and on the Inside Malls web site. SEIU says workers at Sunset Place are paid about $8 per hour with no health benefits.

In its first foray, SEIU sent a contingent of union workers and local community leaders to Simon's Shops at Sunset Place in Miami to drop off a letter urging Simon to use “responsible contractors.” In a strange twist, the union says that its attorney in Miami on the evening before it sent over the contingent, got a call from the Department of Homeland Security asking about the group's planned activities at Miami International Mall, which is also owned by Simon.

Simon says it knew nothing about the inquiry. And also says it has no place in the union discussion. “Our position is that this is between the contractor and its employees,” says a Simon spokesman.

Sunset Mall's workers are employed by Unicco Service Co. Unicco provides services in office buildings, universities and hospitals in addition to malls and employs 19,000 workers nationally, of which about half are unionized, according to a company spokesman. The lion's share belong to SEIU. Most recently, Unicco's workers at the University of Miami — located across the street from Sunset Place — joined SEIU.

But SEIU wants assurances from Simon that if the union does win that Simon won't dump Unicco and hire a non-union contractor.

“There is no way a contractor can wage raises unilaterally and provide health insurance. They would have to pass those costs on to property owners,” says a spokesman for the union. “Until the property owners say it's alright, and say that they'll only use union contractors, we can't move forward. What's to stop Simon from kicking out a union contractor?”

A Unicco spokesman says that the union has not approached the company yet about their intentions. “We've been focused on the agreement at the University,” says the spokesman. “SEIU has a national plan and become very aggressive at targeting the service industry, which is primarily an immigrant-based industry.”

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