Union challenges airport contract: Non-union security viewed as retaliation over city elections

Jul. 6--In the first clash between labor and Mayor Richard Daley since the spring city elections, a major union and some aldermen are criticizing the administration's decision to replace a union airport security contractor with a non-union firm.

Days after labor bankrolled successful challengers to several of Daley's City Council allies, the city awarded a five-year security guard contract for O'Hare and Midway International Airports to Universal Security, which promised to do the work for less money than longtime city contractor McCoy Security.

In a May 29 letter to the mayor, Tom Balanoff, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1, said he had asked Daley aides whether the airport contract decision "happened as retaliation for SEIU's involvement in the aldermanic elections." According to the letter, top Daley aide John Dunn and mayoral campaign manager Terry Peterson told Balanoff that politics played no role in the decision.

Balanoff and some council members, including Ald. Edward Burke (14th), also are questioning whether the new contractor is capable of providing security services at the airports. The deal calls for unarmed Universal employees to guard security checkpoints at O'Hare and Midway and conduct roving patrols of airfields and parking areas.

Universal personnel also could be called upon to augment other security staff at times when the federal Department of Homeland Security decides that heightened vigilance is necessary, according to the firm's contract.

Critics note that Universal had only 130 employees before winning the contract, which requires them to dispatch at least 174 workers to the airports. Universal had revenues of $1.5 million a year before it made a winning bid of $31.3 million to work at the airport from June 1 until 2012.

Aviation Department officials are scheduled to appear before aldermen July 17 to discuss the topic after Burke introduced a resolution calling on aldermen to review the administration's decision.

City officials said this week that they chose Universal simply because it was the lowest of many bidders for the contract and is capable of doing the job.

"Universal's financial condition is sound," said Aviation Department spokeswoman Wendy Abrams.

Universal's owner, former city police officer Mark Lundgren, did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

City documents show that 16 companies, both union and non-union, bid for the contract. Universal's low offer was far below the $49 million proposal from McCoy and slightly better than several other bids. McCoy, a certified minority-owned business, has worked at the city's airports for more than a decade and has had federal government contracts at Argonne National Laboratory in DuPage County.

Much of Universal's work has involved guarding retail stores such as Target and K-Mart. But Abrams said Universal also has airport experience working for a company that provides fueling and other services to private pilots.

Universal has hired many employees from McCoy since winning the airport contract.

"Universal now has 222 employees at O'Hare and 65 at Midway, far exceeding our requirements," Abrams said.

Burke's council resolution notes that state regulators fined the company and Lundgren, its president and CEO, in 2001. Universal was cited for employing two people who did not have active registration cards and Lundgren was on probation for one year, state records show.

Abrams suggested that city officials were unconcerned about that history.

"They have been in good standing ever since," she said. "The state could have suspended or revoked their license, but chose not to."

SEIU, which has clashed with Daley in recent years, spent more than $2 million in the aldermanic elections in February and April.

"It obviously looks like political payback," Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) said of the security deal.

dmihalopoulos@tribune.com

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