Philly Security Guards Choose Independent Union, Spurning SEIU

Security officers at the University of Pennsylvania chose an independent union in a Wednesday vote, rejecting a last-minute SEIU blitz. Photo: Wes Weaver.

A campus organizing drive in Philadelphia once again raised a question that’s bedeviled workers seeking power against their bosses: Should they go with a smaller union where they know they’ll have a voice, or choose a big one with potentially more clout but less say for the rank and file?

Security officers at the University of Pennsylvania are choosing the former route, spurning the behemoth Service Employees Local 32BJ, with 114,000 members in eight states, for the home-grown Philadelphia Security Officers Union.

The 90 officers on campus voted PSOU on Wednesday, nearly doubling the size of the 130-member independent union.

Officers voted 72-2 for the PSOU. SEIU was not on the ballot.

The officers work for contractor AlliedBarton, the big private security firm based outside Philadelphia, and patrol the Penn campus, often escorting students safely home through the streets.

They filed for an election in March—and were immediately hit with a blitz of purple-clad SEIU door knockers.

Leaders of the PSOU drive still had a bad taste in their mouths from a 2007 experience.

Organizing with SEIU, they were suddenly dropped as a result of a deal brokered between SEIU and AlliedBarton. The deal reportedly allowed SEIU to organize without management opposition in some states in exchange for staying away from Philadelphia.

Unwilling to give up and face angry managers without protection, the officers at Penn and at Temple University began a non-majority union effort called Philadelphia Officers and Workers Rising (POWR).

With the support of Philadelphia Jobs with Justice, students on both campuses, local faith leaders, and surrounding communities, the officers used an extensive array of tactics. They combined marches, canvasses, letter writing campaigns, hip hop fundraiser shows, and one short but spirited occupation of the university president’s office to pressure Penn officials to force AlliedBarton to boost standards for workers on their campus.

They gained wage increases and several days of paid sick leave. Better working conditions were also a primary demand. Before the organizing effort, mandatory work meetings were held in a rat-infested basement strewn with trash. With the support of students, officers pushed for and won better and cleaner facilities, which eventually led to the building of a new facility complete with air conditioning and lockers.

After those humble beginnings, POWR morphed into the independent PSOU and secured three collective bargaining agreements at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and another at Penn’s Landing, a shopping and entertainment plaza.

What Democracy Looks Like

While the efforts to organize on the Penn campus produced real improvements for AlliedBarton officers, their activity didn’t lead to a union vote, until now.

Workers reached out to PSOU, driven by the need to address workplace issues including sexual harassment, preferential treatment, and inoperable and insufficient equipment.

But the union once again did not come easy for the campus security officers.

PSOU says AlliedBarton fought the release of officers’ names and addresses until it was forced to divulge the data when the union filed for the election. But the corporation handed over the data to SEIU willingly.

SEIU organizers quickly hit the doors, and six PSOU organizing committee members report that their pitch included a promise of neutrality from AlliedBarton.

“Neutrality was not an offer that was extended to PSOU,” said Penn officer Terrell Rivers. “I wonder why. Is it because SEIU and our bosses at AlliedBarton are friends?”

SEIU organizers told workers a bigger union could win better contracts. But PSOU supporters were adamant that a union that cuts deals without inviting rank and filers into the conversation was not a union they want.

“They negotiated on my behalf with my boss,” said Colin Koch. “Whatever deal was cut did not include our voice. If this is the start of our relationship with the SEIU, then what can we expect in the future?”

Stall Tactics

Using the usual stalling tactics, AlliedBarton claimed that four of the officers who filed for union representation were not eligible because they were supervisors.

In response the four guards stepped down from their positions, taking a pay cut.

“What the boss does not understand is that this is bigger than money,” said Rivers, one of those who stepped down. “This is about being treated like my voice and opinions matter and ultimately it’s about having control of our organization.”

SEIU 32BJ says it has majority support among 3,000 other officers in Philadelphia it’s working to organize in the city’s office buildings and campuses.

“Standards in the private security industry must be raised to provide the men and women who keep us safe what they need to support their families,” said Wayne MacManiman, SEIU 32BJ’s Mid-Atlantic director. “The best way to achieve that goal is for security officers in Philadelphia to unite throughout the city and stand together.”

An SEIU representative declined to comment about the union’s interest in officers on the Penn campus or its dealings with AlliedBarton.

Union Time

Not having paid staff or much resources, PSOU relied on members. Officers organized rallies on the Penn campus with support of the Student Labor Action Project and old community allies.

“We know and trust each other,” Rivers said. “After all, we are the ones that do the job every day. There is no need to send paid professionals to our doors. We know our issues and can speak on our behalf.”

The small size of the unit worked to PSOU’s advantage.

“We work with one another, we talk every day,” said Joshua Hupp, adding that a core committee of 10 officers focused on one-on-one conversations to explain why having an organization controlled by its members is worth fighting for.

Hupp says he supports SEIU’s organizing—so long as it respects workers’ wishes.

“In the end them organizing 3,000 officers is something this city’s lowest-paid workers might benefit from,” he said. “I have no beef with SEIU. I just want my union of choice to represent me.”



Labor Notes staffer Eduardo Soriano-Castillo previously was an organizer for the Philadelphia Security Officers Union.

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Comments

JH02 | 04/14/12

A couple of comments: first, the comment by "The Wizard of the Cause" deserves to be its own post!

Second, here's a bit of info from an earlier Labor Notes story on the Philadelphia Museum Guard's organizing drive:

"The National Labor Relations Board will certify a union for security guards only if no other types of workers belong to the union, even in other workplaces or other states. But SEIU was hoping to pressure employers into voluntary recognition. "

http://labornotes.org/node/2513

Now, I am not bringing this up to defend SEIU's actions, but part of the problem with it organizing guards in that it must win voluntary recognition from AlliedBarton or any other employer of guards. So, when SEIU and AlliedBarton negotiate over voluntary recognition, the company can flat out refuse or rescind recognition at any time.

So why is SEIU organizing guards in the first place? They fall under the umbrella of "building services," yet the law gives employers all the legal power in the bargaining relationship. Aside from dubious backroom deals, SEIU depends on voluntary recognition. And if it depends on voluntary recognition, how can SEIU represent guards if they wind up in a real fight with their boss? How can SEIU bargain a strong contract? Guards-only unions like PSOU are really the only option for fair representation.

Here is some legal history background in case any one is interested:

http://www.wcl.american.edu/journal/lawrev/35/grewach.pdf?rd=1
http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1239&context=ulj

The Wizard of Cause | 04/12/12

I previously organized with 32BJ in Philadelphia on the Drexel campus. First being deployed at the end of January 2011, I was, as a relatively new SEIU organizer in training, sent off to the campus without an ounce of background information or history as to the previous organizing efforts. It didn't take long for me to learn that it was the most burned or burned turf. Organizing drive after organizing drive had come through the Allied Barton ranks there, all promising to fight for the jobs, wages, benefits and dignity.

And while none of this was explained in the slightest to me, a still green unionist with a chip on my shoulder (I myself was formerly a Securitas Security Officer myself, so working in an industry in which I had personal experience felt fantastic) I was nevertheless as gung-ho as could be.

That is, until I discovered the apathy. Now, mind you this is not your normal worker apathy I'm discussing, wherein questions like "why do I need a union?" or "nothing gonna change, why bother?" come up. No, this was harder than that. This was an absolute distrust of me and the local I came to represent. Being that most workers wouldn't even look at me, let alone talk to me, it took a couple weeks to find out what really happened.

This being because any questions I posed at the local office were met by the campaign lead with "don't worry about that, focus on the relationals!" Finally though, after two or so weeks of constantly hanging around, asking question, engaging workers and being kicked out of building after building, I finally managed to get a patrol officer in the northern part of the campus to bring me along for his rounds so we could talk.

It was then that I learned exactly why I was persona-non-grata with the officers of Drexel. In 32BJ's top end negotiations with Allied Barton some years ago, not only did they agree to leave Philly alone, but they stopped organizing and pulled out while in the thick of their campaign, leaving the workers who had come out as leaders and activists to be burned by the company. Punishment assignments and shifts, reduction in hours, reassignment to posts that were impossible for the officers to get to and in many cases, simple firings. And not only that, but following this, regular meetings regarding the "dangers" of unions, using the argument over 32's withdrawl as a sign that they wouldn't stand behind anyone.

Naturally, this took a certain level of nuance and planning to get around and after yet another month of 18 hour days, when I was finally cracked the shell and had leaders emerging, I was inexplicably pulled from Drexel and the Allied Barton campaign and sent to work organizing US Security Associates officers at the nearby Hannehman Hospital in what campaign leaders described as an effort to "increase the pressure on Allied corporate management."

This was done under protest of course, as the few meaningful relationships I had forged at Drexel, generally in the dead of night while would now be left without an on sight organizer to work with. Making sure to stay in touch with my soon-to-be members, I was promised my turf would covered, but learned some two weeks later that not a soul had been seen or heard from since my reassignment. Raising this with campaign management, I was again promised that the turf would be covered and then ordered to cut all contact at Drexel and hand all contact information over to the office.

Now, had this little organizing nightmare ended there, I'd not bother writing such an essay as I am now. However, in the following month plus I was kept on US Security Associates, I was informed of yet another tragic and ill advised move by 32BJ management. This came in the form of sacrifice. Sacrifice of workers.

In addition to the hospital, other US Security sites and officers had been located within blocks and we were quickly assigned to organize them. With workplace abuses equal to or worse than many of those I had already discovered at Drexel still ongoing, organizing of most sites (other than the hospital) was relatively easy, as they had by and large not experienced the same sort of burn the Allied officers had. And soon, regular meetings were underway and cards were being signed. All this while periodic questions and phone calls would trickle in from Drexel, slowly undoing all the work I had put in previously.

But then...an oddity. As the meetings grew larger and cards began being signed, the campaign lead quietly approached me and the other organizers working US Security Associates, instructing us to slow down on cards and organizing, citing that 32BJ may need to drop the sites entirely once senior local management had brokered an organizing agreement with Allied Barton corporate. As it turns out, it was all a ruse. We had not been sent to organize US Security Associates for the benefit of their workers, as much as we'd been dispatched to ratchet up the pressure on Allied's biggest competitor during top end negotiations. My members, who had risked all of what little they had to win the strength of unionism, were pawns in a game against a titan of private security.

Soon after this however, a row over OIT use by locals arose between the SEIU International OIT program and the Philly local I was with, over whether the OITs were to be hired and taken off International payroll. Amidst this, I was redeployed again, this time to a white collar campaign in New England which was doomed from the start. (No research, literature, data on the workplace, identification of workers or even assigned management. It was basically three OIT's with no clear directives or identified universe of operation.)

I have since left SEIU and even won a UUR grievance against them for their treatment of myself and OITs in general. Yet in unfortunate news, even six months after my tour at Drexel was complete and I was no longer even in the state of Pennsylvania, I was recieving numerous calls and text messages from my very same Drexel workers, asking where I had been, where the union had been, claiming they had not seen nor heard from anyone since my departure. They told me they were calling because they were concerned over rumors that 32BJ and Allied Barton had negotiated a grace period wherein the union would have free reign to organize unimpeded, so long as Allied be given time to "clean out their troublemakers."

Had I known more about the organizing of independent unions in Philly at the time, I would have likely steered them that way. As it is, for all inquiries made through old channels to find out exactly what the state of affairs was at Drexel, with people I had gotten to risk their very jobs to stand with a union who I swore had their backs, I couldn't learn a thing. Neither could they.

Advising that they cease signing 32's cards until they had clarity as to exactly what was going on, I was not so shocked when a phone call came in from the old campaign lead. Having never returned any of my calls or emails previously, I knew exactly what he wanted. He insisted that I give him all updated contact information for the people I was talking to, however with understandibly little trust in the man, I refused, insisting that he send an organizer to the Drexel site to organize a meeting. He argued, bantered, cursed a bit and followed that by some unintelligible mutterings I'm positive was just more curses, then we ended our conversation.

For all the inquiries I've made as to what is going on there today, I've been met with faux enthusiasm on the part of organizers still in the thick of things and frustrated confusion on the part of workers. I am happy to see in some ways, it is still sunny in Philadelphia, at least for some of its security workers. Good on you all! For the labor movement does not need its own Walmart style giant, more interested in its own institutional political sway than the benefit and prosperity of its workers. Shop unions are how this movement started and amidst the ongoing assault by corporate conservative interests and the general ineptitude of senior international union leadership to place the real voice, strength and benefit to American workers above their partisan political investments, I believe it may be the only way for the workers of the United States to reclaim the power they once had and rightfully deserve.