Unionizing at the Art Museum

Announcing the union vote on the steps of the Art Museum last week were (left to right) Rev. Jay Broadnax, Mt Pisgah AME; Fabricio Rodriguez, Executive Director, Philadelphia Jobs With Justice; Juanita Love, Roman Sentry guard; Jennifer Collazo, AlliedBarton guard.

After two years of tough organizing, it's hard to believe that it has already been a week since security guards who work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art voted to join  the Philadelphia Security Officers Union, by a vote of 68 to 55.

The guards are employees of AlliedBarton, the country's largest provider of private security personnel. One of its contracts is with the museum, which pays AlliedBarton about $4 million per year for about 130 security guards to man the cultural behometh on the Parkway.

In an e-mail, the Museum told the Inquirer, "The museum is not, and has not been, a party to this matter and will not be involved in the next steps. The next steps are between AlliedBarton, its employees, and the union."

That "Don't look at us - we're just the client here" stance is similar to the one Temple University took in November 2007, when I wrote a column about how the school's AlliedBarton guards were pushing for paid sick days (at the time, the guards had none at all). A Temple spokesman told me, back then, that it was the university's policy to not intervene into the employer-employee relationship at companies that do business on the campus.

Which was a bloodless way to pass the buck, since AlliedBarton often adjusts its employees' pay and benefits according to whatever terms have been negotiated with a client.  If Temple had wanted its guards to have paid sick leave, the university could have made that benefit a condition of its contract with AlliedBarton, which could adjust its cost to Temple accordingly.

Two months later, that's what happened. As a result of loud student support of the guards' plea that they be permitted three paid sick days per year, Temple intervened with Allied Barton and the guards got a sick-leave benefit.

In doing so, Temple followed in the footsteps of the University of Pennsylvania, which had earlier - finally - also intervened to get paid sick leave for the AlliedBarton guards who work at Penn.

Still, fighting from one client institution to the next is a clunky way to go about ensuring that employees are treated with a bare minimum of decency on the job. If the whole security-guard workforce were organized, it could focus the issues.

The AlliedBarton guards who man the Art Museum were granted paid sick leave last year. With the union vote, they now hope to use collective bargaining to tackle their next issues - better wages and health care, says Fabricio Rodriguez, executive director of Philadelphia Jobs With Justice, which helped the guards organize. As talks ensue, it will be interesting to see whether the musuem maintains its "We're just the clients here" stance.