On January 19th, the Service Employees International Union(SEIU) will have a party at the First Unitarian Church at 22nd and Chestnut St. to launch the second effort to organize private security guards in the City of Philadelphia. This is probably exciting to you and your co-workers, but you should know that SEIU is going to face some challenges that may prevent them from being able to help you after all. I am writing this letter to tell you some truths about SEIU and some of their limitations, limitations that security guards had to learn about the hard way a few years ago.
I have dedicated several years to trying to give security officers a voice on the job and the right to change their work lives through collective bargaining.
I am glad that there are other organizations out there that might be dedicated to this same goal – our little union, the Philadelphia Security Officers Union, could probably never organize every guard in this city, even if given 100 years to do so.
Security guards are undoubtedly better off joining SEIU (if they can get in) than not being in a union at all. I hope that SEIU will have better luck trying to convince companies to deal with them in 2011 than in 2005.
In 2005, SEIU contracted with Jobs with Justice, the organization that I ran at the time, so that we could help build community, clergy, and student support for their effort.
After we ran a two year campaign for improvements at the University of Pennsylvania, the Community College of Philadelphia, and Temple University, SEIU was not able to force AlliedBarton, the company that technically employs the subcontracted guards, to recognize them as the union.
However, SEIU was able to secure an agreement with the same AlliedBarton to represent security guards in other cities as long as they agreed not to organize security guards in Philadelphia. In other words, the company promised to recognize SEIU as a union elsewhere, as long as they left Philadelphia until 2011. SEIU saw our guards in our city as a small sacrifice.
Once this deal was signed, SEIU left the security officers and Jobs with Justice without so much as a phone call to warn us that we would now have to face the employer alone.
When security guards found out that they had been abandoned, some guards were angry, some guards cried, and some guards were fired.
After SEIU left us, we found ways to fight back against unfair employers like AlliedBarton, Roman Sentry, Scotland Yard, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation and Oakley Security. We won paid sick-leave and wage increases up to $15/hour for some guards.
Eventually, we formed our own independent, labor union, called the Philadelphia Security Officers Union, which now represents 180 workers employed by four employers at two different locations in the city.
Now that we have been through many trials, I want to tell you about some things that the SEIU organizers may not be ready to share with you.
SEIU may never become your union no matter how many of your co-workers want to join.
Unlike a normal security guard union, SEIU cannot file for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (see Section 9 (b) 3, the “security guard only union” rule in the National Labor Relations Act). SEIU has been successful at forcing employers to accept them as the union in other cities. They may be able to force your boss to accept them as the union in a year or two. Then again, it may never happen.
You and your co-workers are just one small part of a bigger plan.
Even if you and every one of your co-workers are ready to join SEIU, not only are you prohibited by the federal Labor Board, but your are probably prohibited by SEIU. Since SEIU cannot represent you through the federal labor board process, they have to sign a prearranged agreement with your boss in order to become your union.
This prearranged set of terms will proscribe for SEIU which work sites can join their union. If you are on the list, you are in, if you are not, you will find yourself on your own.
In order to become your union, SEIU will have to sign away the most important improvements (wages, benefits, etc.) that you want to make.
I believe that a union should give workers a chance to have some control over their work lives. This means that guards should have a chance to sit down with their bosses and talk about their wage and benefit package.
According to the agreement that SEIU makes with your employer, SEIU will set the most important terms of your working conditions for you, before you ever get to sit across the table from your boss. Since they cannot call for an election, these kind of deals are the only way that SEIU can compel your employer to deal with them.
So here’s what you can expect in the next year or so: An SEIU organizer will approach you and ask you to sign up to join the union. You should know, that unlike any other “security guard only union,” SEIU may never be able to become your union. You should know that you are probably only one small part of SEIU’s grand plan, and if they cannot force your employer to give them the right to represent guards at dozens of other sites, then you will likely not become a member of their union. Finally, you should also know that if SEIU is able to force your employer to accept them as the union, then you will not be a full partner in figuring out how to change your workplace.
I’m writing this to you now, a few days before SEIU throws its celebration because I want make sure that you know the truth about the limitations that SEIU is facing. Had they been honest with us during their last attempt, I am sure that we all would have prepared for their eventual defeat differently. Many guards would have not chosen to work with the union at all. The good news is, a small group of tenacious security guards have proven that with dignity, honesty, courage and careful planning, you and your co-workers can win your rights on the job, take control of your destiny and set the terms of how you expect to be treated, by your union and your boss.