Wednesday, August 6, 2008

DAILY PENNSYLVANIAN: Gabe Oppenheim | A year later, a much better reaction

Last year, the University showed little interest in its security guards' quality of life - this year, Penn took action quickly

10/4/06 Gabe Oppenheim

For certain AlliedBarton security guards, the stench of garbage and the sight of rats marked the start of every work day for the past several months.

The reason dates back to earlier this year, when President Gutmann increased the number of late-night bike patrols by more than 50 percent. The increase forced Allied to move its biking guards' roll call - during which guards receive their bikes and orders for the night - from Penn Police headquarters at 4040 Chestnut St., where there was no longer room to store equipment.

By the summer, Allied and Penn had decided on a new spot for roll call. It was an abandoned parking garage underneath Sansom Place East, at the corner of 37th and Chestnut streets.

Which would've been a fine location, of course, if it weren't already the de facto garbage dump for the local Wawa, Pizza Rustica and Korean restaurant.

But it is.

"It's a bad place to be going in for roll call," said one guard who wouldn't give his name because he's forbidden from speaking to the press. "I wouldn't let no other people go down there because it's real bad down there. You've got roaches and rats down there. They huge, alright. They're the size of a possum."

Of course, the real question wasn't whether the garage was a good place for roll call. Obviously, it was not. And it was only a temporary solution; Penn is in the process of refurbishing a building at the corner of 40th and Sansom streets that will become Allied's hub early next year.

No, the real question was whether Penn had learned to care about the treatment of its subcontracted guards, a full year after the Philly Five incident.

If you recall, in August 2005, five Allied guards working at Penn presented a petition to Gutmann; it requested better wages from Allied and asked for her support.

Allied is an independent company to which Penn subcontracts its security services. Gutmann had no direct ability to raise guards' wages. But she did have the power of her position as president of Penn, which pays Allied millions every year.

The tactic backfired. Allied suspended the five guards and transferred them to off-campus positions generally viewed as Allied's worst. When Penn found out in October, Gutmann and her administration did nothing.

Thankfully, other groups cared. The United Minorities Council urged Gutmann to get involved. Even a regional director for the National Labor Relations Board told this newspaper that Penn should demand higher wages for guards.

In mid-October, Gutmann finally changed her mind, urging Allied to return the five guards to their original posts. She also assigned Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli to study guards' working conditions. Allied then reinstated two of the five guards (the other three had left the company).

That brings us back to the present. A week ago, when I found out about the roll call, I e-mailed Carnaroli to ask him about it. Within 24 hours, he had questioned Allied and asked Maureen Rush, the vice president for public safety, to inspect the garage.

Rush also searched for a new location. By Friday she had found one: the abandoned CVS building at 39th and Walnut streets, which will remain empty until it is demolished in December. Tonight, for the first time, Allied guards won't have to report to a rat-infested garage Instead, they'll meet at the old CVS. And all it took was a single e-mail.

Indeed, one could judge Penn cynically for that, wondering why the school didn't act earlier. Or why a newspaper spurred the process, when for months, guards have complained to their superiors about the unsanitary conditions.

But I would rather concentrate on what Penn did do - even if it was motivated by the desire to avoid a public-relations black eye. Besides, this past Monday, Carnaroli and Rush even met with the Undergraduate Assembly to discuss guards' working conditions, while Carnaroli has spent months surveying Allied employees.

And a year ago, our University cared so little about guards that it was willing to incur a black eye just to avoid dealing with them.

After the five guards were suspended, the president of the Philadelphia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said, "We could have a few thousand people out there at Penn's campus." And yet Gutmann, facing the threat of major protest, still didn't act for weeks after the suspension.

A year later, all it took was two days.

Gabe Oppenheim is a College sophomore from Scarsdale, N.Y. His e-mail address is Opp-Ed appears on Wednesdays.

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