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Has Labor Been Left Hanging? | The Nation

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Has Labor Been Left Hanging?

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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.

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Sarah Jaffe
Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist and the co-host of Dissent magazine's Belabored podcast, an editorial...

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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.

Mark Price, a labor economist with the Keystone Research Center, agrees. "This is a classic case where the Employee Free Choice Act would be very beneficial by leveling the playing field between a sophisticated corporation with a lot of leverage and a small local union." Before a recent compromise in the Senate, which appears to have weakened the bill to appease conservative Democrats, EFCA would have allowed workers to organize once a simple majority signed union cards--which would mean that the guards would already be union members. In addition, EFCA would require binding arbitration if after three months the employer and the union cannot agree on a contract, and would stiffen the penalties against employer intimidation--something that Collazo says happens regularly.

Pennsylvania Senator and recently converted Democrat Arlen Specter is at the center of the EFCA debate in Congress. Specter, who stated at the time of his party switch that he still intended not to vote for cloture on EFCA, is facing a primary challenge from Representative Joe Sestak, a co-sponsor of the bill in the House. Pennsylvania is one of the top five states in the country in union membership, and union support will be critical in the Democratic primary. Though Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com has noted that since Sestak announced his challenge, Specter has been a more reliable Democratic vote, Specter remains opposed to "card check," and without him the bill won't have the sixty votes needed to avoid a Republican filibuster.

The New York Times reported that Specter is now involved in trying to broker a compromise bill that would not contain card check but would instead expedite union elections and increase penalties on employers who intimidate employees out of joining a union. The election rules the Times reported would require elections five to ten days after 30 percent of workers sign cards, which would still be a step forward for the museum guards. Still, with the healthcare debate taking up most of Congress's attention, it will likely be a while before any form of EFCA sees a vote.

Meanwhile, the museum continues to put off efforts from the guards to discuss their wages or other working conditions. Jobs With Justice has been reaching out to incoming museum CEO Timothy Rub, who oversees a unionized security workforce (members of SEIU Local 1) in his current position in Ohio, but so far has received no response. Interim CEO Gail Harrity has said only that she prefers to "respect" the employer-employee relationship of AlliedBarton and its guards.

Yet it was the museum that changed its contract with AlliedBarton (worth nearly $4 million in 2006) to require paid sick days, and Jobs With Justice intends to continue to put pressure on the museum. Rodriguez and others have attended museum events with flyers protesting the treatment of the guards, and are creating a documentary about their efforts. Those efforts will culminate with the "welcoming party" for Rub on September 6, on the steps that Rocky made famous.

Without the support of a major union, and without action on EFCA, the guards are largely on their own in their struggle for a living wage. "The kind of workforce that they are, there is virtually no other answer for them besides unionization--they're unaffiliated with big labor, they're just a bunch of men and women who said 'This is what we want.'" says Rodriguez.

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