Working In These Times
Long-Running Philly Guards Struggle Heats Up, as City Council Enters Fray
Yesterday (April 12), Philadelphia city councilmen debated whether to dole out $2.3 million to the Philadelphia Art Museum while its security guards are in a bitter contract battle with the private AlliedBarton security firm.
"AlliedBarton in my opinion not only is not doing right by workers, they're not doing right by you," Councilman William K. Greenlee told Timothy Rub, director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Last week Rub for the first time called on AlliedBarton to respect the independent Philadelphia Security Officers Union, which won a hard-fought election in October. The museum’s letter to city council says AlliedBarton must bargain in good faith. Union organizer Eduardo Soriano-Castillo says the statement is a victory of sorts, but that the union "can do better."
“It’s a good first step, but it doesn’t have a date, it doesn’t specify what next steps the museum is willing to take.” union organizer Eduardo Soriano-Castillo said. “It doesn’t have teeth.”
The current contract negotiations are the culmination of a nearly two-decade saga, which began with the privatization of the security force as part of city cost-cutting in 1993. Guards were previously represented by AFSCME and made $14 an hour. Privatization meant their salary dropped to a current $10-per-hour and they lost benefits and seniority rights.
Organizers say the museum has the power to mandate elements of AlliedBarton’s contract with workers, noting that a recent gain of three paid sick days per year was at the museum’s behest.
“It’s one of those things with subcontracting,” Soriano-Castillo said. “Usually these really wealthy institutions want to pay someone else to abuse workers. They think they can say ‘It’s not me swinging the whip, it’s those guys at AlliedBarton, there’s nothing we can do about it.’ Then you go to AlliedBarton and they say, ‘The client has the final say on everything.’ They just keep sending us back and forth.”
The struggle is part of a larger campaign to improve wages and working conditions for the city’s 16,000 security guards, the vast majority of them African American.
The Philadelphia Security Officers Union website says: “Though being a security guard is one of the most deadly jobs in our city, the vast majority of security guards earn poverty wages, lack health care and dignity on the job.”
Jobs with Justice calls it the biggest civil rights campaign in the city’s history, and compares it to the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ drive for a union.
SEIU briefly tried to organize Philadelphia guards, but backed off as part of a deal allowing them to organize other guards. The independent union drive started at Temple and Penn Universities, where guards are also hired by AlliedBarton, and spread to the art museum. At all three workplaces they have used strategies like pushing for paid sick days as a wedge issue, demanding concessions from the company even without official union recognition.
By last fall, a majority of art museum guards had signed membership cards for the Philadelphia Security Officers Union. But without a vote, the company refused to recognize them, making the struggle a symbol of the push for card check in the Employee Free Choice Act.
As they geared up for a vote, workers and supporters alleged AlliedBarton ran a classic union-busting campaign, with the tacit support of the museum. “Supervisors held mandatory meetings insisting the company’s contract would be cancelled if the union won and that any gains would be wiped out by union dues, and implying that supporters risked firing,” Labor notes reported. “The guards turned the meetings into grievance sessions, shouting down the supervisors.”
Finally, in October 2009, after weeks of an energetic public and media campaign by workers and supporters, the guards voted 68 to 53 to form the union.
AlliedBarton has challenged the election, saying supporters were pressuring and intimidating workers. Soriano-Castillo calls the charge ridiculous, and says an observer from the National Labor Relations Board was on hand and reported no problems.
“They know we’re a grassroots union, we are not a member of the AFL-CIO or any of these big conglomerations, we don’t work for a union boss, it’s just three guys mostly volunteering and the security guards themselves,” he said. “They’re counting on us to sit on our hands and wait for the federal appeal to go through the courts, which could take years.”
But if that’s what AlliedBarton expects will happen, Soriano-Castillo says, they are mistaken.
“We’re dealing with politicians at city hall, putting pressure on the board of trustees, building support, because we want them to withdraw that appeal and come to negotiations,” he said.
Earlier this year, the union charged that 60 percent of guards are inadequately trained. They are pushing for better training, worker retention, better wages and benefits—and a change in the public’s perception of security guards.
“Let’s be frank, when most people think about security guards, they think about some fat dude sleeping with a newspaper on his lap,” Soriano-Castillo says. “These are people who are proud of their jobs, who’ve been doing it for years. They want to professionalize the industry, so you know if you fall down they’ll know what to do, so they’re trained for fire drills, they know how to do their job well. Then maybe they can shift public opinion.”