The Philadelphia Museum of Art is a recognizable icon even to those who have never set foot in the city. Immortalized in the movie Rocky, when a sweatsuit-clad Sylvester Stallone bounded up the stairs while training for his big fight, the museum became a symbol of the working-class tenacity that Philadelphians are known for.
On September 6, those steps will host a different kind of blue-collar battle: the museum security guards will be holding a rally in support of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and their right to form a union.
The guards are employees of AlliedBarton, a Pennsylvania-based company that provides subcontracted security guards for a variety of businesses. More than 85 percent of Philadelphia’s security guards work for AlliedBarton, including the guards at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania. At the art museum, the AlliedBarton guards make $10.03 per hour regardless of seniority, and only recently won the right to up to three paid sick days a year.
Until 1993, when the museum began contracting out its security work to AlliedBarton, the security guards had been members of District Council 33 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The move was one part of a broader effort by then-Philadelphia mayor, now Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, to cut costs out of the city’s labor contracts. Before AlliedBarton took over, the security guards were making $14 per hour (more than $20 in today’s dollars) and received full benefits.
Despite months of organizing, the guards face an uphill battle. Because of a caveat in the National Labor Relations Act, the security officers cannot be part of the same bargaining unit as other non-guard union employees at the museum. SEIU attempted to organize AlliedBarton security guards throughout Philadelphia in 2006, but abruptly gave up. So the museum guards decided to form their own union, the independent Philadelphia Security Officers Union, and in December 2008 a majority of them signed cards expressing their desire to become members. But AlliedBarton has thus far refused to recognize the union.
Security guard Jennifer Collazo, a five-year employee of AlliedBarton and a US Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, has been working with Philadelphia Jobs With Justice to try to organize her fellow employees since June, just a few weeks after AlliedBarton sent her to the art museum. “You’re fighting a couple of demons,” she says of the workers’ struggle, as employers blame stagnant pay on the bad economy, and her fellow guards fear for their jobs if they rock the boat. This year the guards were promised a 25-cent raise, only to have it revoked. Collazo also says she is regularly sent home early from her shifts due to overstaffing.
Jobs With Justice organizer Fabricio Rodriguez believes that the museum, which has the ability to set rules for labor standards with its subcontractors, may be in violation of Philadelphia’s prevailing wage law and the guards eligible for back wages. He also sees the guards’ struggle for recognition as a clear example of the need for national labor law reform.