A labor lesson

Imagine starting a labor union to represent workers against two powerful forces -- one of the largest security guard companies on the globe and one of the nation's largest labor unions. That's what Fabricio Rodriguez, 37, a labor entrepreneur faced when he set out to organize security guards at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania and later, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

To set the stage, Rodriguez came to Philadelpha about six years or so ago and soon found work as the coordinator for the local branch of the Jobs With Justice organization. This group helps labor unions with their campaigns to help workers by enlisting sympathetic allies to apply community pressure to the companies. 

Fabricio Rodriguez

When the Service Employees International Union set out on a national campaign to organize security guards employed by Allied Security LLC, headquartered in Conshohocken, they enlisted Rodriguez' group to round up the sympathizers, bring in the preachers, mobilize the students, and build some outside support for the campaign. AlliedBarton, as the company is commonly known, dispatches security guards to many locations, including Temple, Penn and the museum.

As it turned out, Rodriguez was a little too successful. I'll let him pick up the story. You can read how he got involved in worker advocacy in his Labor Day interview published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Click here to read it. Now back to Rodriguez:

"We began organizing on the campuses and we had a lot of support -- so much so that at Temple the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) was threatening civil disobedience at school trying to force the administration to lean on AlliedBarton to recognize SEIU as the union.  

"Temple called AlliedBarton and said, `We have a problem. You have to fix it.' AlliedBarton came on campus and saw all the posters and chalk and they saw these students were serious and that broke the deal. So Allied Barton called SEIU and said, `Let’s work something out. Just get these people to stop,'

"But this is where the break was between our efforts and and SEIU."

Blogger's prerogative here: Rodriguez didn't know about a key provision in labor law. Under labor law, unions that represent other workers can not also represent security guards. That's because of a potential conflict of interest should there be a problem at a workplace. The only way it can happen is if the employer agrees. Partly because of the Temple scenario, AlliedBarton was ready to talk to SEIU and allow them to organize guards in other areas, but not in Philadelphia.

Rodriguez: "So SEIU asked the students to not rally and not do civil disobedience because we were going to mess up their conversation with AlliedBarton. But the students, always, from day one, had been a legitimate local grassroots organization with their own objectives and that was to achieve wage and benefit improvements for the security guards at their campuses in their city, the people that they knew.  

"They wouldn't make that promise -- AlliedBarton or SEIU. The deal in Philadelphia was that they were going to leave us flat and organize in other cities. One day you wake up and you think you have a union and then the next day it’s not even in the realm of possibility to have a union. You have two options at that point. We are going to continue to fight and figure out some other means or we are going to quit. Our security officer friends, they didn’t want to quit. We began to organize and try innovative stuff."

Blogger's prerogative again: Rodriguez' crew of student activists and guards managed to win wage increases and sick pay at Penn. Penn agreed to improve a guards' staging area that had been located near a dumpster station, complete with rats and standing water. Understand that Rodriguez' group wasn't a union, but it was still able to apply some pressure and get improvements. Then the group won wage increases and sick pay at Temple. A lawyer helped the group win an unfair wages case against AlliedBarton workers employed at an apartment building. The group, then called Philadelphia Officers and Workers Rising, established enough momentum that it received a grant from the Bread and Roses Community Fund. Soon there was an active campaign to unionize AlliedBarton guards at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez turned to organized labor for help. He didn't get it, at least not through official channels.

We "had interviews with possible union affiliates, but we didn’t see that any of them had much to offer. Nobody was going to support us with resources or organizers or they couldn’t do it, so we were pretty much on our own. They wanted to fly in with a box of union cards and wish us luck, you know.

"But, we had already won millions of dollars in workplace improvements. We had a plan, but what we really needed was resources -- staff, money, attorneys -- but nobody would put anything on the table. So we figured we’d be better off creating something from scratch, so it was an enormous volunteer operation. I never looked at it like why weren’t we brought under the [organized labor] umbrella because we had never been under the umbrella, or we were somewhere on the very edge of it.

"We were connected with the believers, I would say. We had volunteers from dozens of labor unions around the city, but not clear backing from most of the unions. All the very progressive unions were out there in support, but mostly we had volunteers from unions who said `This is something vital and important and grassroots, and democratic and I want to be a part of it,'  but institutionally, there was no way for unions to support something like that. 

"We looked around, we couldn’t find anybody, so we created it ourselves."

In October 2009, the AlliedBarton security guards at the museum won their union election. They first contract became effective on May 1 of this year. Click here to read my colleague Stephan Salisbury's story about the contract.

Here's Rodriguez' takeaway:

"What I would say to working people is that if there is any lesson from the security officers union it is that you have to take your fate into your own hands -- that's the most important thing.  The workers’ rights movement is fundamentally about working people taking control of their fate. It’s them taking the risks, them doing the activism, them moving their other co-workers."