Guards File for Union, Jobs with Justice Rallies Supporters to "Welcome Change”

By James Generic

On Oct. 10, 2009, the security guards at the Philadelphia Museum of Art voted 68–53 in favor of unionizing, marking the first independent guard union in the United States. They have since organized under a horizontal, democratic model and are pushing the museum for a contract.

This battle began on Sept. 6, when around 100 members of Philadelphia Jobs With Justice, Students for a Democratic Society, faith leaders and other supporters rallied in support of the Philadelphia Security Officer Union (PSOU), an independent grassroots union comprised of security guards who watch over the most precious art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The rally was held after the members of PSOU filed for an election for the union to be recognized by the security company Allied-Barton and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as the guards' official union. They were joined by the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a radical punky marching band from New York City who had come down to provide music and lead the protest.

The theme "Welcoming Change" was meant to pressure the incoming Philadelphia Museum of Art President Timothy Rubb to show support for the guards, and also to point out that labor law needs to be changed (thus showing support for card-check legislation, which would have given guards instant recognition). Several speakers from the guards, clergy, organizers and more commenced after a long, lively procession around the museum. Several guards remarked afterward how good it was to see the supporters out in force, since the battle on the inside of the museum would be heating up as the company pushed back against the union through intimidation and fear mongering.

This rally capped a nearly five-year campaign called POWR (Philadelphia Officers and Workers Rising) in which security guards and Philadelphia Jobs with Justice, itself a coalition of labor unions, students, progressive clergy, faith groups and other community members, have fought to reform the security industry in Philadelphia. Allied-Barton, which employs nearly 90 percent of the security guards in Philadelphia, pays poverty wages of around $10 an hour with medical benefits that are too expensive for the guards to afford on such meager pay. The security guards in Allied-Barton in Philadelphia are 95 percent African American and majority women. Historically and legally, security guards have been excluded from many legal protections for fear that unionized guards would join other unions in strikes, and so they have been compelled to form guard-only unions. Other low-wage workers prohibited from union organizing include domestic workers and farm workers.

After targeting Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, POWR won sick days and wage increases at those locations, and the Museum of Art was the first attempt to go for a union. The decision was made by the guards at the museum to form an independent union after no big unions would take up the cause, on account of previous truces and agreements with Allied-Barton. This entirely independent union, formed with the support of organizers Eduardo Soriano and Fabricio Rodriguez from Jobs with Justice, was the most basic of unions: workers getting together to fight back against the injustices of their jobs and the culture of fear within Allied-Barton, instead of just quitting.

The campaign battle at the Museum of Art was the latest in escalating yet respectful tactics by supporters to put pressure on the museum to force Allied-Barton to recognize PSOU. There had been several rallies outside the museum in the previous year. Members of Jobs with Justice attended the "Art After 5" event and handed out DVDs of the documentary Welcoming Change, detailing the art museum struggle by the security guards. Since Allied-Barton took away a promised 25-cent raise, members of Jobs with Justice took up panhandling outside the art museum in a symbolic protest to make up the difference.

Going forward, it will be crucial to support the guards as they fight to escape poverty through collective action. Philadelphia Jobs with Justice and its allies will keep rallying support to prevent Allied-Barton and its silent accomplices at the Museum of Art from crushing the independent, worker-led union. As Junita Love of PSOU said, quoting Frederick Douglass, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

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