Last September, when a small group of Swedish delegates arrived in Indianapolis to tour the city, they didn't climb the Soldiers and Sailors monument, or go to the zoo.They went, instead, to an east side neighborhood plagued by foreclosures, and to a hardscrabble south side trailer park.
"One of the richest countries in the world," said Karl-Elis Martin Viredius, vice president of the Swedish Transport Workers Union, as he gazed out the window at the rows of abandoned houses and dingy trailers. "Isn't that sad?"
Viredius and the several Swedes accompanying him were in the Midwest as part of a mission on behalf of their unions and of Securitas, a Swedish-owned, multi-national private security firm that supplies security guards to businesses, hospitals, public buildings and other locations all over the city.
They were there to observe, among other things, the living and working conditions of Indianapolis security guards who say they are underpaid, given poor benefits, and are almost completely unregulated by the state – conditions that sit in direct contradistinction to Securitas policies as stated by company executives back in Sweden.
"As we understand it, it's this company's policy to be pro-union, to be pro-social justice, to take some kind of social responsibility," Viredius said. "They're not doing this in the states."
According to the terms of an agreement with international unions and its own 2004 "Code of Conduct," Securitas has agreed to, among other things, "respect... the rights of all employees to form and join trade unions of their choice and to bargain collectively," to promote "a safe and healthy working environment," and to "develop services and the market as a whole with the goal of raising standards and wages in the industry."
But local workers, community leaders and organizers for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), say Securitas isn't holding up its end of the bargain stateside. Efforts to organize have met with strong resistance by local management – here, and in other cities around the United States where union representation is weak or fledgling.
In response, officers at Securitas and other security companies around the city have begun the uphill battle of organizing under the umbrella of the SEIU. If enough security workers from enough companies band together, the SEIU says it can negotiate with one voice for better conditions and wages for security workers across the city.
But so far, critics say, companies like Securitas aren't playing ball – despite the ethics Securitas espouses at home, in a more labor-friendly country like Sweden.
"According to the Global contract, Securitas is supposed to respect workers' rights to form unions," Veiredius said. "And what we see here, now, is they don't. They don't honor their own agreement."
Hugh Abel, 58, is one of the Securitas workers who lives in that Southside trailer park. A security officer for 27 years, he worked for seven years as a special deputy and for four years at Loomis Fargo. As of last September, he had worked at Securitas for five years and never received a raise from his $10.50 an hour wage.
By contrast, Swedish Securitas workers make between $17.42 and $21.19 an hour, according the SEIU.
"I remember a time when one person could support a family by working one job," he said. "That time is gone."
Indeed, a study on poverty by Penn State University, places some Securitas wages – reported by some to be as low as $17,700 a year – at just above what's considered a "living wage" for one adult – conservative by any standards. An adult with one child requires over $31,000. Abel said he lives "paycheck-to-paycheck," despite his modest living situation and decades of experience.
He also suffers from pulmonary disease, and depends on the Veterans Administration because his Securitas-sponsored health insurance is so meager. In September, he said he had just recently required an ambulance to get the hospital. His employee health plan covered just $200 of the $741 bill, despite the fact that Abel paid $104 a month for the insurance.
"I'm still waiting to see how much they're going to pay on the hospital bill, which is $1,700 dollars," he said.
Abel is one of the few working for Securitas who buys company-provided insurance. A study by the SEIU found that 83 percent of officers in Indianapolis do not enroll in the company health plan because they say it is too expensive. A full 55 percent don't have health insurance at all.
According to all guards surveyed, officers do not receive paid sick days. The study also found that, like Abel, some 92 percent of officers surveyed in Indianapolis had not received a raise in the last year.
Missy Peagler, a fellow Securitas officer, said she didn't bother with the health insurance. As for a raise, she had tried.
"They told me, 'Well, you're not going to get a raise, just
be glad you have a job,'" she said. "They have this global agreement, and it
seems like our company, where we live in Indianapolis, is taking it personally
because we want a living wage."
Meanwhile, Securitas, despite some recent setbacks due to the global economic downturn, continues to do very well in the United States. Most security companies, including private-investigation firms and armored vehicle services, are independently owned – constituting 71.8 percent of the market, according to a December report by IBISWorld, an analyst group based in California.But, of the major security firms operating in the U.S., Securitas is the largest, with a full 11.7 percent market share.
In 2010, Securitas brought in an estimated $3 billion from its U.S. operations alone, according to IBISWorld, in spite of the recession. Revenues are recovering and look to continue that way over the next several years, along with revenues throughout the industry.
Still, Abel isn't the wallowing sort. When Karl-Elis Martin Viredius, the Swedish Transport Workers Union vice president, commented on how bad the insurance was compared to what they received working for the same company in Sweden, Abel shrugged.
"No, but it's better than nothing," he said. "Land of the free, except it costs you."
Securitas is rapidly building a history of non-compliance with its own company ethos here in the U.S., where union strength has generally been on the wane since at least the Reagan era.
Susanne Elisabeth Bergman Israelsson, a Securitas employee in Sweden and a member of Securitas Board of Directors, explained that labor-friendly legislation in Sweden requires companies to install a union representative on their boards of directors if the union asks for it. Otherwise, the companies are fined.
Management-labor relations at Securitas were very good in Sweden as a result, she said. "We have a good (relationship) in Sweden, talking to the management at the top level."
But on her trip through the Midwest, she got to witness some challenges presented by corporate America first hand. She had just come from Cincinnati, where her delegation tried to present a letter to local Securitas management from employees requesting union recognition. Despite being on the company's board of directors back in Sweden, she was rudely dismissed.
"They slammed the door in my face," Israelsson said in lightly-accented English. "It was shocking."
Management response here in Indianapolis has, thus far, been no different, sparking a series of disputatious encounters between Securitas management and staff since last summer.