[ labor ]
The University of Pennsylvania's outdoor security officers — the ones who stand watch or pedal around University City — are attempting to unionize, for the third time in seven years.
The first time they went up against their employer — the behemoth, Conshohocken-based AlliedBarton — they had the backing of another international outfit: the 2.1-million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In the clash between the two giants, the local workers were trampled. The D.C.-based SEIU split town without warning, leaving openly pro-union workers to face management's wrath. The second time, they were blocked again — by another national union that deferred to SEIU.
Now, SEIU wants to give it another shot, and so do the guards. But this time, the guards have selected a David to face AlliedBarton's Goliath. They're betting on the Philadelphia Security Officers Union (PSOU), a small, independent labor organization that won its first collective-bargaining agreement in 2011 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which also employs AlliedBarton guards.
Whether PSOU will be able to accomplish what SEIU did not — to give the guards a voice in dealing with one of the nation's largest private security contractors — remains to be seen.
At a rally on Penn's Locust Walk on March 15, security guards spoke in turns through a bullhorn, outlining their grievances.
"There is strong disregard for our basic needs: Our equipment is crappy ... the bikes we ride don't work," said Corey Dowdle. "We have standby units that occupy a street corner for seven or eight hours, have to be out in a hurricane or a blizzard. And our health care is complete garbage: $100 co-pay per visit and $3,000 cutoff. One good accident or hospital trip and we are dead in the water."
But above all other considerations, the guards emphasized they want a seat at the negotiating table and protection from arbitrary management decisions. "Everything at AlliedBarton is on threat of losing your job," said one guard, Garnet Grant.
At the rally, workers carried signs evocative of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike, reading: "I AM a huMAN." Students led chants. A guard, Joshua Hupp, urged supporters to bombard Penn's Division of Public Safety with emails. "The more they hear from you, the better chance we have of being heard in the upper echelons of this wonderful institution," he shouted.
Penn referred queries to AlliedBarton, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment. However, a March 17 letter from AlliedBarton vice president Jim Gorman sent to Penn guards declared neutrality — not to PSOU, but to SEIU organizing efforts. It pledged, "if a majority of AlliedBarton security officers in Philadelphia choose to authorize SEIU to represent them, we will ... recognize the SEIU as the union representative."
That has drawn the ire of PSOU backers in the Penn security force, many of whom are still bitter from SEIU's last organizing drive in Philly.
That effort began around 2005 with help from SEIU's International D.C. headquarters, which brought in the activist group Jobs with Justice to provide ground support. For a while, things seemed to be progressing. Then, as City Paper reported in 2007, "SEIU pulled its three organizers off the Penn and Temple campuses. People the guards had been working with for two years simply vanished."
SEIU had struck a deal with AlliedBarton that would allow the union to easily organize security guards in other cities — if it left Philadelphia alone.
The Jobs with Justice staffers stayed with the campaign and, together with the workers, won paid sick leave and wage increases for Penn guards. But in 2009, when the guards approached another union, Security Police Fire Professionals of America, they referred the guards back to SEIU.
In the meantime, SEIU's deal with AlliedBarton bore fruit: Thousands of officers in other cities gained union agreements?. And now that SEIU wants to bring the campaign back to Philly — and AlliedBarton appears to be on board — PSOU-aligned guards are outraged: "In the past two weeks, every Penn Walk and Penn Park security officer has been visited or called by SEIU. AlliedBarton gave SEIU our personal information without our knowledge," they wrote in a statement.
But SEIU's effort may be too late. At Penn, at least 80 out of 100 guards have signed cards requesting PSOU representation, and a union election will be held on April 11. According to John Breese, assistant to the regional director at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Philadelphia, AlliedBarton might not be able to force SEIU representation at this point. "Once a petition is filed, an employer would be precluded from recognizing another union," he notes.
AlliedBarton's neutrality agreement with SEIU appears to be the latest in a series of soft-line deflections. Guards told CP that management recently began offering improved health-care plans and promotions to supervisory posts. The day before the rally, Hupp and several others had attended an NLRB hearing to confront another tactic. The company claimed the officers filing for union recognition are not an appropriate bargaining unit because they include corporals and sergeants. Supervisors are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act.
The Penn guards came up with a way to circumvent the rule: The four guards in question offered to step down from their supervisory positions. "For four of us to go to a lower position should prove that this is not about the money," Colin Koch told the crowd. The rally broke up amid cheers of "PSOU!"
"The reason we are going with a small, unknown union is that we want to have a say," Koch says. "The working man will be running this union."
Grant agrees. "PSOU is a union where we actually have a say in the negotiation and the contract, whereas with SEIU everything is done behind closed doors. They [would] give us a contract we have no input to. How do we know they actually negotiated in good faith for us if we aren't present?"
At the Art Museum, PSOU secured wage increases of 8.5 percent in year one, and 14.5 percent over the course of the agreement: That's close to a $2,000-per-year raise.
Says Fabricio Rodriguez, a PSOU organizer, "In terms of collective-bargaining agreements, I don't know what SEIU has, but PSOU has great contracts."
Still, SEIU has big plans for Philadelphia. A few SEIU representative were hanging around the fringes of the Penn rally last week. According to a flier one of them gave to City Paper, the union "is in the process of helping over 3,000 Philadelphia security officers gain union recognition."
The current campaign is in the hands of SEIU Local 32BJ's Mid-Atlantic district, not the International that pulled out six years ago. But the letter does not offer details like, say, where those 3,000 guards work or whether they've actually been unionized yet. CP contacted Wayne MacManiman, director of 32BJ Mid-Atlantic, to ask about his union's position on the PSOU unionization drive at Penn, and the status of SEIU's ongoing campaign. He responded with a statement: "Standards in the private security industry must be raised. ... The best way to achieve that goal is for security officers in Philadelphia to unite throughout the city and stand together to win the respect they deserve."
That certainly sounds like SEIU would like to incorporate PSOU into its fold. But the Penn guards say they're set on maintaining their independence.
"We are out here 24/7 to protect the Penn community and the surrounding neighborhoods," Hupp says. "We seek basic things: a conversation with management."