Every day, Richard Ruiz maneuvers his mountain bike through swarms of tourists in neon "I'm in Miami Bitch" T-shirts on Lincoln Road. Sweating through his white uniform, he watches for shoplifters and herds away panhandlers. Once in a while, he breaks up a drunken shoving match.
Ruiz still thinks he and the dozens of other private guards who patrol Lincoln Road, Ocean Drive, and Flamingo Park deserve more respect. Their employer, Security Alliance, pays ten dollars an hour and provides no health insurance or benefits. A promised 25-cent raise was never delivered, Ruiz says.
"We're tired of getting lied to," he says.
So, in January, Ruiz and about three-quarters of his co-workers signed cards asking Security Alliance to allow them to unionize.
Company leaders interrogated employees, Ruiz says, demanding to know who supported the union. The company then sent a memo to all of its Miami Beach rent-a-cops: "We feel very strongly that you do not need a union." A few weeks later, the guards were called to mandatory meetings and reminded that hundreds of applicants were ready to take their jobs.
"These are all violations of federal labor laws," says Eric Brakken, district director for the SEIU, the service workers' union trying to organize the guards.
Company CEO David Ramirez says the complaints are bogus. In fact, SEIU pressured his guards into supporting the union, he says.
"The fact is, I have no problem with unions," Ramirez says. "I have a problem with their lies and their intimidation."
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In late June, just as the Miami-Dade County Commission prepared to vote on whether to hire Security Alliance to patrol Metrorail stations, the hammer fell on the Beach. About 30 guards were laid off — many of whom supported the union. Ramirez says Miami Beach budget cuts are to blame.
The SEIU filed a formal complaint, but commissioners awarded a piece of the $36.3 million Metrorail contract to Security Alliance anyway.
Says Ruiz: "People are scared. I just don't think it's right."