Perhaps it is a sign that retail real estate has become a mature industry.

After decades of flying under the radar screen of organized labor, malls have suddenly become a battleground for unions. Over the past three years, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — the largest union in the nation with more than 2 million members — has waged a campaign to organize janitors at properties owned by some of the nation's largest mall owners.

Since May, SEIU has focused on Chicago-based General Growth Properties, the second-largest owner of malls in the United States. Currently, it is trying to organize janitors at more than 20 malls — about 10 percent of the firm's portfolio.

And things are getting nasty.

SEIU is employing a media campaign against General Growth and it's not limiting itself to talking about issues of workers' rights, benefits and wages. For example, in May, during the ICSC Spring Convention at a hotel across the street from the Las Vegas Convention Center, SEIU, along with several other groups, conducted a Monday morning press conference claiming teen curfews enacted at some General Growth properties were unfairly targeting youths of color. Then in September, the group sponsored a national conference call through a group it funds — Good Jobs First — accusing General Growth of draining community coffers by seeking tax breaks and subsidies.

An official from General Growth says that SEIU is using the other issues to target the company, but its real focus is elsewhere. “The SEIU is not really concerned about tax fairness or justice for employees,” says Jim Graham, General Growth's director of public affairs, in reference to the Good Jobs First study. “They simply want to increase their dues-paying membership.”

On that front, since July, service employees at General Growth-owned malls have filed a total of 37 charges of unfair labor practices against the corporation and two cleaning contractors. The janitors allege that they were threatened, interrogated and spied on for engaging in union activity.

“In terms of the industry in general, [General Growth] is behind the curve” on workers' rights, says Kevin O'Donnell, an SEIU spokesman. “You're seeing them work with contractors who don't respect workers' civil rights and don't respect workers' freedom to choose a voice on the job.”

The drive to unionize janitors at General Growth marks the latest chapter in SEIU's larger campaign against mall owners and contractors. The shopping center industry has shown diverging attitudes toward unions. In 2004, SEIU began agitating against Westfield Group, and last year it expanded the campaign to Simon Property Group. Westfield and Simon each reached pacts with SEIU in December to raise wages and improve health benefits for service employees.

Companies such as General Growth that decline to meet the union's standards could continue to find themselves bearing the brunt of unflattering publicity. But to satisfy SEIU, mall owners might have to require contractors to improve wages and benefits, which could affect their bottom lines as well.

Yet industry resistance to union demands goes beyond General Growth. This year ICSC opposed the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would have allowed employees to unionize by signing cards instead of holding elections. (ICSC did not return calls seeking comment on the campaign and its implications for the industry.)

SEIU is part of the Change to Win Coalition, which broke off from the AFL-CIO two years ago. Both federations support the Employee Free Choice Act, and the AFL-CIO intends to continue pushing for its passage in Congress. Card-check unionization is “the most democratic process for workers to form a union free from intimidation,” says an SEIU spokeswoman.

So far, General Growth and its contractors show little sign of following Simon and Westfield to a spot in SEIU's good graces. The union aims to persuade the companies to allow their janitors to join its ranks. It also seeks to persuade General Growth either to require its janitorial contractors to increase wages and benefits or to work with other contractors who already meet its standards.

Representatives from General Growth and its contractors call SEIU's allegations and publicity campaigns part of an organized effort to tarnish their names.

Higher pay, health plans

In the dispute with General Growth, workers are seeking a 10(j) injunction that would bar General Growth and its contractors “from interfering in workers' freedom to choose a union,” according to a press release. Violations have been “so severe and frequent that workers need this extra level of protection so that their rights are guaranteed,” says SEIU's O'Donnell. The charges center on nine malls in California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey and Washington.

Janitors allege that supervisors from two contractors — The Millard Group and Service Management Systems (SMS) — fired, threatened and interrogated employees active in their unions. Workers also accused General Growth officials at Park Meadows Mall of spying on union representatives and denying pro-union workers access to the site.

“We want to stop the abuses from the employer, and we deserve better benefits,” said Christian Valle, a janitor at Paramus Park, through an interpreter provided by SEIU. Valle and coworkers began trying to unionize several months ago.

Maria Trejo, a janitor at Park Meadows for more than five years, says she and her colleagues are overworked and coping with inadequate staffing. A Millard supervisor ordered Trejo and her coworkers to remove pro-union stickers, she says.

Jerry Kwiatkowski, executive vice president for Millard, calls SEIU's press releases about the charges “incomplete and inaccurate,” adding, “We do not believe a union is necessary for Millard employees.”

Millard recently raised wages at properties it took over and strives to create “a team environment where employees can resolve issues directly with the company,” he says.

“There is no need for Millard employees to pay a union to speak for them,” Kwiatkowski argues. An SMS spokesman says the employer is cooperating with the NLRB review and denies the charges. But SEIU accuses the firms of paying too little to cover necessities such as food, rent and transportation. The employers also offer no health care or other benefits, the union alleges.

General Growth recently took steps to address these issues, a move that Graham says is unrelated to SEIU's campaign. General Growth will require its janitorial vendors to commit to minimum pay standards as they renew contracts over the next two years.

The corporation will also raise wages for janitors at more than 40 of its malls. Wage hikes will correspond to surveys of wages paid to comparable workers in the area, with most falling in the range of 20 percent to 25 percent. Trejo says she recently received a raise of $3.15, bringing her hourly wage to $10.15 an hour.

General Growth also plans to offer health insurance plans to individual workers and families, with employers paying 75 percent of the costs. General Growth will ultimately bear the cost of the policies, for which more than 3,000 janitors will qualify.

“We are proud to have initiated that code of conduct for our vendors, because janitors are some of the most important workers laboring in our malls,” Graham says.

These steps, however, have not thrown SEIU off the trail. In the charges filed with the NLRB, janitors say that these wage hikes and health-care offers amount to an attempt to undermine the unionization drive.

O'Donnell calls the changes “a step in the right direction” but says few workers will be able to shoulder the 25-percent share of the health insurance plans being offered. He also notes that the plans and pay hikes are not guaranteed to last.

“Janitors know that these promises came after they stood up to form a union,” he says. “And they know that these things can be taken away just as easily.”

SEIU looks beyond labor disputes

SEIU has not limited its campaign against General Growth to the arena of labor disputes. In May the union issued a press release calling attention to discrimination complaints filed by customers at the firm's Mayfair Mall in Wauwatosa, Wis. In complaints filed with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, customers claimed they had been followed, harassed, searched and asked to leave the mall due to their race, according to the union.

More recently, SEIU commissioned the Good Jobs First study. Good Jobs First acknowledges that General Growth is not alone in getting financing or other assistance in building projects from cities and states through economic development agencies. The study singles out General Growth because they are the target of an organizing campaign. “To be honest, all other mall operators engage in the same practices,” says Philip Mattera, research director at the nonprofit. “We're not suggesting that this is unique behavior on GGP's part.”

In fact, SEIU commissioned a similar study last year focusing on Simon Property Group. At Simon's request, SEIU did not release the study, O'Donnell says, and Simon later committed to providing wages and health coverage that met SEIU's standards. The corporation has never commented publicly on the agreement and would not comment for this article. A spokeswoman for Westfield also did not return calls.

Simon and Westfield contractors Unicco and Control Services Group both met the union's standards for wages and benefits and also supported workers' rights to join a union, according to SEIU. The contractors and several other janitorial companies did not return calls. Representatives of two contractors, Maintenance Inc. and Federal Building Services, declined to comment.

Will SEIU expand its campaign to other mall owners? O'Donnell cites no specific plans. But SEIU hopes that by pressuring the biggest owners, such as Simon, Westfield and General Growth, it will make waves that will ripple throughout the industry.

“If the industry does not begin to improve standards and help lift more workers out of poverty, you'll see more and more janitors beginning to fight for the good jobs…communities need,” O'Donnell says.