Antoinette Smith protects downtown Chicago. As a security officer on the CTA rails for five years, she is the first line of defense in a city that has become increasingly dangerous with a record high murder rate and fewer police on the streets. Antoinette and thousands of her fellow officers are fighting for a new union contract to secure a better future for their families. Security officers keep Chicago safe, but they don’t feel safe at home; they believe that higher wages for working families in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods could help quell the violence.
Employed by private security companies, officers like Antoinette protect people taking public transportation, visiting or working in commercial office buildings and enjoying public spaces. Despite the danger and importance of their job, security officers are paid as little as $10 an hour, or $20,400 a year, which is below the poverty level for a family. Even though she works full time, Antoinette still struggles with monthly bills and earns so little that she qualifies for public aid.
Antoinette and her colleagues see a vital link between low wage workers’ struggle with poverty and the gun violence crisis in Chicago. Most SEIU Local 1 security officers live in Chicago’s West and South side neighborhoods where more than 80 percent of last year’s 534 murders occurred. After work, Antoinette returns home to Chatham on Chicago’s South Side, a neighborhood which has felt the costs of the city’s violence epidemic: “I went to nine funerals last year, and only one was for a person over 70,” she says.
While they help keep Chicago secure for workers, business and tourists, the officers do not feel safe at home and struggle to build a better future for their families. That’s why the officers launched a city-wide petition drive in support of President Obama’s legislative proposal to reduce gun violence. By uniting to both improve wages for security officers and address the epidemic of gun violence in Chicago, the officers are shining a light on the underlying cause of neighborhood violence: rising poverty and falling wages.
“We need better jobs. Better jobs lead to better communities. Better communities lead to a safe Chicago,” Antoinette contends. The city’s union security officers are calling on Chicago’s security contractors, corporations and banks to do their part and provide good jobs. Ensuring that workers have good, family-sustaining jobs is a direct route toward improving conditions in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods and lowering the murder rate. Employers should take their cue from Antoinette: “We don’t live in a perfect world,” she says, “but we can make it better.”
Private security officers in Chicago organized a union to win better pay and a voice on the job in the 1970s. The officers have made great strides by coming together, but the improvements to wages and standards have not kept pace with the wealth of the booming industry or the increasing demands of this important and dangerous job. The downtown security officers’ union contract expires April 21 and directly affects more than 2,000 Chicago officers. Bargaining will begin in late March.