It was springtime 2006, and things were looking good for the private security guards who patrol the campuses of Temple and the University of Pennsylvania. For more than a year, organizers from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had been courting the guards, building support for a union. This was the same SEIU that unionized janitors at colleges across the country, and subsequently won raises and new benefits for many of them.
The pressure brought to bear on the guards' employer, AlliedBarton, had already resulted in concessions such as warmer uniforms for outdoor winter shifts. And the activist group Jobs with Justice, which contracts unions to, as organizer Eduardo Soriano puts it, "bring the fucking noise" to union drives, had a big, climactic rally planned for April 4, featuring students and clergy. There was a sense of excitement, momentum, promise. And then a surprising thing happened.
A few days before the rally, SEIU contacted Jobs with Justice and said it had begun negotiations with Allied. It needed a moratorium on negative publicity until Sept. 1.
Soriano and his fellow Jobs with Justice organizer, Fabricio Rodriguez, are activists in the truest sense, inclined toward action and wary of compromise. Neither they nor the student activists they were working with wanted to cancel the rally. But they did dial back their rhetoric so that Allied wasn't targeted. Then, they waited.
Five months later, on Aug. 30, 2006, a meeting was held in Allied's downtown headquarters. Soriano and Rodriguez were there, along with a student activist named Shakirah Simley, two security guard leaders, a representative from SEIU and several from the security contractor. It became quickly apparent that something was amiss.
"We are not here to discuss the right to a union," said Allied representative Sidney Toombs, according to notes Soriano took that day. Instead, Allied claimed it had come to address the individual qualms of the guards who "took the time" to come to the meeting. SEIU seemed fine with this.
Soriano, Rodriguez and the guards walked out. Two weeks later, SEIU pulled its three organizers off the Penn and Temple campuses. People the guards had been working with for two years simply vanished.
"They essentially bolted out of the city without telling us about it," says Thomas Robinson, a guard at Penn. "Not a single one of them returned a phone call."
SEIU had put its organizing campaign on hold because it wanted to cut a deal with Allied. Now, the guards and Jobs with Justice believe a deal was cut — except it didn't involve the unionization of Penn and Temple.
SEIU, they say, sat down with Allied and, in exchange for the ability to organize elsewhere, agreed not to do so in Philly for a certain amount of time. In essence, it bargained the Philly guards away.
AlliedBarton is one of the largest security companies in the world. Headquartered in King of Prussia, it's particularly strong at home, employing more than 85 percent of the security guards in Philadelphia.
Back in 2005, SEIU International was organizing security officers at Penn and Temple as part of a nationwide campaign to unionize Allied. Philly was actually an early focal point of the effort. When five security guards who delivered a pro-union petition to the office of Penn President Amy Gutmann were suspended and transferred off campus by Allied, SEIU dubbed the group the "Philly Five," and built a media blitz around them, taking them on a tour of universities around the country.
But then SEIU and Allied went into negotiations. Several sources tell City Paper that Allied was dead set against surrendering its most dominant market, and agreed to reduce its opposition to SEIU's efforts in other locations if SEIU backed off in Philly.
Asked whether Allied and SEIU had struck such a deal, Allied spokesman Larry Rubin said, "You have to talk to SEIU about that." A spokeswoman for SEIU said that the people who know what transpired in Philly last year were either on vacation or had left the company.
Robinson, the guard from Penn, believes the deal is more than a rumor. After all, since pulling out of Philly, SEIU has continued to organize Allied guards in other locations, such as Seattle and Boston, where it now represents guards at Harvard. (There are still local chapters of SEIU in Philly, organizing janitors and health care workers; they were not involved in the Allied campaign, which was run by the international union.)
Robinson actually respects SEIU's decision to take what it could get, even though it doesn't really fit with the labor movement battle cry of "Solidarity." Still, he wishes it hadn't happened. A big, round man who looks like he'd be an imposing presence behind a security desk, Robinson took a job with Allied in 2003. Being from a union family, and with a natural inclination toward activism, he was excited when a co-worker told him about the organizing drive, and assumed a leadership role. When SEIU pulled out, he says, other guards came to him, asking what happened to the union he'd assured them they could trust. "I was stuck with no answers," he says. The pullout "really put a dent in our campaign."
SEIU had built its drive around a promise to fight for better pay (Robinson, who's been with Allied for four years, makes $10 an hour), more respectful treatment (officers complain that promotions are based on nepotism, that they can be fired on a whim, and that for years, bike officers were required to attend roll call by a trash dump), and better benefits (the co-pay for coverage for a family of four is about $175 out of a two-week paycheck). About 200 of the more than 500 guards on Penn's campus had signed union cards. Now, they began to drop out.
At the same time, Rodriguez and Soriano didn't want to disappoint workers like Robinson who'd risked their jobs for the sake of a union, or abandon that potential union in its infancy.
First, they tried handing off the campaign to someone who could manage it. "We thought we'd go find a security guard union," says Rodriguez. But nobody was interested.
For a couple of months, they flailed around, looking for a course of action and, frankly, risking the life of their small outfit: They were putting all of their time into a project that no major union had asked them to embrace.
Finally, early this year, they happened upon the concept of a "minority union." A rare creature in today's labor world, Soriano describes the model as the elemental version of organized labor. Generally, a union wins the support of a majority of the employees in a workplace, and then becomes the official bargaining agent for those employees in contract negotiations. A minority union, common in the 1930s, does not have to demonstrate majority support. It can try to negotiate contracts (and indeed, there's a case presently in front of the National Labor Relations Board, in which seven unions are asking that employers be required to bargain with minority unions). But generally, it relies on collective action and public pressure to exert leverage.
For example: The remaining active guards at Penn and Temple decided to form a minority union, and this past April 4, a coalition of guards, students and clergy held a rally at Penn demanding security guards be granted sick days. Allied refused, but Penn, under pressure from its customers — the students — stepped in and offered to pay for a new plan in which guards receive one sick day for every year they've been on the job, up to three days. The plan went into effect on July 1.
Next Wednesday, the same coalition will hold a rally in North Philadelphia to make a similar demand of Temple. A spokesman for the university says that, "Temple does not have a position on this matter. ... This issue is between AlliedBarton and its employees." Perhaps the school will change its mind when it finds itself the object of the rally's wrath — or perhaps it won't. People are still gauging the significance of minority unions, and whether, after the disappointment of SEIU's withdrawal, the guards have happened upon a strategy that works.
"This is the new economy," says Rodriguez. "No one has been able to figure out how to organize [it]. A lot of the traditional models don't apply. I'm excited to be just trying to figure this out."