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Brown: O’Hare security contractor fires strike leaders

Antwione McShane (left) was fired by Universal Security Inc. three days after meeting with U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez (at right wearing glasses) to air concerns over alleged efforts to thwart union organizing at O'Hare Airport. | Provided photo

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In the four months since low-wage security workers at O’Hare Airport staged a one-day walkout as part of their effort to unionize, six of their eight leaders have been fired.

The fired workers were employed by Universal Security Inc., which has a city contract to provide what it calls a “third level” of security at the airport.

The company is owned by Mark Lundgren, a former Chicago police officer whose website touts its work guarding Barack Obama’s 2007 campaign headquarters and Rahm Emanuel’s 2011 election night party.

The retaliatory tactics began almost immediately after the March 30 job action, when Universal fired two women who gave interviews to the news media, including me, about the reasons behind their unionizing effort.

Four more have been fired since then, including a man who was terminated three days after he joined a contingent of Service Employees International Union members for a June 24 meeting in Washington with U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez about airport working conditions.

It’s hard to believe that retribution of that sort for union activity is possible these days in supposedly union-strong Chicago, especially with a Democrat in the White House and his former chief of staff at City Hall.

OPINION

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But it goes to show fighting for your rights remains a difficult proposition for workers at the low end of the economic scale in a cost-conscious labor environment.

The Service Employees International Union is leading a nationwide campaign to organize airport security officers, baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, janitors and passenger attendants — most of whom are paid at or near minimum wage.

The union’s lawyers have filed National Labor Relations Board complaints on behalf of the fired security workers, but the process is agonizingly slow for those left without a job.

Sadaf Subijano, 42, had worked 20 years as a security guard at O’Hare for a revolving succession of companies holding the city contract, most recently Universal, before she agreed to step out front as the public face of the unionizing effort.

Universal quickly fired Subijano under the pretext she violated a provision of the company’s city contract forbidding employees from speaking to the media about airport security operations.

As a veteran employee with a good record, Subijano was shocked to receive such heavy-handed treatment.

“I’m always punctual. I’m always on time. I’m a good worker,” Subijano told me Tuesday, sounding dejected.

It’s not as if Subijano exposed some secret holes in O’Hare security.

In our original interview, she told me the company’s unarmed, uniformed guards receive little training for emergencies other than to use their radios to call for help, which is probably evident to anyone who has seen them.

Universal’s guards handle lower-level security responsibilities at O’Hare such as monitoring doors and gates.

I’m sure Subijano’s comments embarrassed her employer, especially because they also happened to be true. But they hardly qualified as a security breach.

Getting better training was a main issue for workers seeking to unionize, along with convincing Lundgren to make good on broken promises for better wages and benefits.

I was unable to reach Lundgren for comment Tuesday.

As you might imagine, the targeted firings have had the intended chilling effect on the union organizing effort.

But the three fired workers with whom I spoke said they do not regret their decisions.

“I feel like what I’m doing is going to be effective for the future,” said Antwione McShane, the worker fired after meeting with Labor Secretary Perez. He said the company unjustly accused him of leaving his post early.

Despite a recent 2 cents per hour wage hike to $12.15, Universal workers are still paid less than Chicago’s $13 “living wage” minimum for city contractors because the company is working under a one-year extension of a contract that predates the requirement.

It’s enough to make you wonder how they’ve managed to keep that contract.

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