SEIU Campaign Against Wackenhut Heats Up

The corporate campaign has been an increasingly powerful weapon in organized labor’s arsenal of bargaining tactics. Rather than go on strike, a union targets a company whose practices it finds offensive, links up with civil rights, environmentalist and/or community groups, and launches a blitz that may include in addition to a strike, a boycott, pickets, leaflets, negative public relations, harassment of customers, lawsuits, blackmail, and complaints to regulatory agencies. Unions first applied this tactic during the 70s. Coca-Cola, Food Lion, Nike and Wal-Mart are but a few major corporations that have learned first-hand how rough things can get. Wackenhut Services Inc. (WSI) for the last two years has joined the club. The Service Employees International Union has been trying to publicly discredit the company until it accepts the union as the sole collective bargaining agent. The company, for its part, has a reputation to protect, and is letting people know about it.   


The Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.-based Wackenhut is the U.S. government’s largest security services contractor, with 8,000 employees protecting key installations here and abroad. The SEIU, with about 50,000 security and public safety personnel, doesn’t like the fact that Wackenhut guards are represented by at least 10 different unions. It wants the company to sign an exclusive representation agreement. WSI contends such an agreement would circumvent procedures established by the National Labor Relations Act. “Our security officers are already organized, and they are the best paid, best trained security forces in the business,” said Wackenhut President David Foley. “There is no reason to target our company, other than SEIU’s blatant desire to destroy legitimate security unions and expand its membership.”      


Such words don’t impress officials of the 1.8 million-member Service Employees, the nation’s largest private-sector union. They’ve been spreading the word that the company, an affiliate of the West Sussex, UK-based Group 4 Securicor (G4S), has been lax in its protection of military bases, nuclear power plants and other security-sensitive sites. Citing findings from a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, union officials allege Wackenhut, among other things, cheated on anti-terrorism drills, violated weapons inventory and handling policies, and cut corners on patrols at nuclear power plants. “How many mistakes does a contractor like Wackenhut need to make for agencies like DHS [Department of Homeland Security] to realize that they are not right for the job?,” asked Stephen Lerner, director of SEIU’s Property Services Division. The union has been issuing press releases attacking the company’s competence, firing its latest salvo on April 19, claiming WSI had lost Defense Department competitive-bidding contracts to protect various Army bases, including Fort Bragg, N.C.    


WSI President David Foley fired back that this latest statement is as rife with falsehoods as the previous ones. “It is implied by the SEIU that we are the only company working those contracts. This is simply not true,” said Foley, a retired Army Brigadier General. “We are one of six companies that currently work on the DOD contracts in question.” Foley also accused the union of misrepresenting Government Accountability Office findings. “The GAO report did cite several noncompliance issues and problems,” he said, “but none of these were WSI or its teaming partner’s problems.” He added that the original contracts were sole-source contracts after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, put into place as an emergency measure to deploy Army units abroad. “We always knew at some point those contracts would be rebid,” said Foley.   

The National Labor Relations Board, at least, appears sympathetic to Wackenhut. The company had filed an unfair labor practice suit with NLRB over tactics used by paid operatives of the SEIU. In turn, the board last July 12 insisted that the union “inform its membership to halt disruptive activities, to not engage in unlawful demonstrations and to not threaten, coerce or restrain clients of Wackenhut,” a directive that extends to third parties. The company may emerge from all this with its reputation intact, but if the more than 30-year history of corporate campaigns is any guide, even a successful defense of a reputation can get expensive. (PR Newswire, 4/20/06; Labor Reform News, 5/9/06; other sources).