Luis Andino was out fishing with his buddies in the Bronx when he heard the news. They’d stopped to get bait early that morning 20 years ago, and on the television in the bait shop Andino saw a thing that would change his life. A plane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. At first he thought, Maybe a guy’s drunk, maybe he hit the tower by accident. Then, back out on the water, he heard an unusual sound: a fighter jet screaming overhead.
“I just told the guy that was running the boat, take me back to land,” he recalls. Then a security officer for the Rivington House Nursing Home on the Lower East Side and an NYPD volunteer, Andino knew he would be needed. He started helping with search-and-rescue efforts, an endeavor he’s reluctant to describe even now. “Just body after body,” he says. “Pieces over here. Pieces over there. Horrifying.” Andino lost friends and family on 9/11, their names now inscribed on the memorial he guards as a lead security officer at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. I met him there in late August, not far from where the towers used to stand. “For a long time, it affected me,” he said. “I wouldn’t even come back down here.”
At the time of the attack, he says he was barely making ends meet working double shifts at two jobs as a security guard. “Seven to three, three to eleven,” he says. 9/11 would transform Andino’s industry, leading to a boom in so-called “guard labor.” Go anywhere in New York City now, and security officers are nearly ubiquitous. On the swampy summer day when I met Andino, they roamed the grounds of the memorial, monitoring crowds, directing tourists.
In 2018, urbanist Richard Florida observed that the nation had added twice as many guards as teachers over the previous ten years, with 2.9 million working as guards, compared to 3.6 million teachers. In the years before 9/11, many officers were Black and brown people earning minimum wage or just above it. They, like Andino, often received no benefits. It’s perhaps no wonder that high levels of guard labor also tend to correlate with high levels of economic inequality. “States with high levels of income inequality — New York and Louisiana — employ twice as many security workers (as a fraction of their labor force) as less unequal states like Idaho and New Hampshire,” economists Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev wrote in a 2014 piece for the New York Times.
Prior to 9/11, the people performing guard labor often made little. When Juanita Hernandez started working in security in 1997, she made only $5.60 an hour, about $9.50 today adjusted for inflation. On 9/11, she worked security at 55 Water Street and became stuck at work for an entire week. The company tried to accommodate its stranded workers, but conditions were less than ideal. “We had no beds,” she recalls. Security officers took turns in shifts, “just trying to be attentive to whatever’s happening in the lobby, which is a lot of chaos.”
Israel Melendez made $13 an hour with no benefits while he guarded what used to be the Tribeca Grand Hotel. “It was real hard” making ends meet, he says. A teenage parent, he and his wife had to share an apartment with a roommate to get by. On the morning of September 11, he heard a “big bang,” looked up, and saw the second plane “flying real low,” before it struck the other tower. Though he rushed home to the Bronx at first, his boss called him back in; there was work to be done. “We stood two days in the hotel,” he remembers. On the first night they didn’t sleep. “You could still smell the smoke and the ash,” he says. Later they took on a somber task. A number of the hotel’s guests had a breakfast meeting at Windows on the World, and never returned. “We had to pack their stuff,” he says. “I remember when their families came in to pick up their stuff and they were in tears. It was one of the most emotional moments.”
Melendez, Andino, and Hernandez all either belong to or work for 32BJ SEIU, and say its organizing efforts transformed conditions within the security industry. They point to partnerships the union forged with local churches and community groups, dispatching security officers to march in the West Indian Day parade with Senator Chuck Schumer and, in 2005, staging a mass action. Thousands rallied around the Empire State Building and marched up 34th Street, and some were arrested for civil disobedience. Over time, the union expanded the share of security officers it represents, and in the process, raised wages (Hernandez is now a fire safety director for the United Nations, where she makes $26.70 an hour) and won benefits for its new members.
Andino says these changes earned greater respect for him and for his peers. He points to the union’s preferred nomenclature — security officers — as an improvement over the old term, security guard; it captures the extent of their newer responsibilities. After 9/11, officers now had to search everyone and underwent more training. “How to run X-ray machines, what to look for in the X-ray machines, how to wand people, how to look for a suspicious person,” he recounts. The field is more of a career now, with opportunities for advancement and education. Andino makes a living wage these days, and sent two children to college — changes he credits to the efforts of his union.
Melendez, who now works for 32BJ SEIU, says that challenges remain. “I’ll be honest with you, we’ve made a lot of gains, but there’s still more to gain,” he says. Still, he says he’s pleased with the union’s accomplishments. “Even though we had a tragic event in 9/11 and a lot of people were lost there, we came out of that stronger and people stuck together to change the narrative of what the industry looks like,” he adds.
“I’m very, very proud,” Andino echoes. “Proud that the union stood with us, fought with us to make it better.”