[ serendipity ]
Step one: Get a better bathroom. Not one in a dreary concrete-block room without a sink, with spattered dollops of feces and no seat, which makes using the restroom a water hazard for women.
Step two: Show the co-workers a bathroom improved as a result of organized complaining, and then workers will want to vote for a union.
The bathroom, says Fabricio Rodriguez and employees of Scotland Yard Security stationed at the Philadelphia Housing Authority's (PHA) Norman Blumberg Apartments at 24th and Jefferson streets, would be a small step, but it's important. They're talking about it at the office of the Philadelphia Security Officers Union (PSOU), run solely by Rodriguez, on Aug. 21, one day after the Scotland Yard employees filed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to unionize.
"If you go in there right now, it ain't fit for nobody," says one guard. "It ain't even fit for an animal."
"I think the bathroom is a really sympathetic public issue," Rodriguez tells the guards. Pressure Scotland Yard management to fix the bathroom designated for the housing project's guards, get enough support, and they can bank on a majority of the 27 guards stationed at Blumberg to vote yes. (Scotland Yard managers did not return phone calls.)
For PSOU, getting those votes is a big deal for once, Rodriguez is battling something besides Philadelphia security titan AlliedBarton, which Rodriguez has over the past six years turned into his own personal Lex Luthor. In October 2009, AlliedBarton guards at the Philadelphia Museum of Art voted to unionize. Although Rodriguez has lobbied for better wages and benefits for AlliedBarton guards at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, those guards didn't end up unionizing, and as of now, the museum guards comprise essentially the entirety of PSOU. Within the next six weeks the window in which the NLRB mandates an election the Scotland Yard guards will decide whether PSOU will remain a one-client firm.
In many ways, the complaints are similar to those at the art museum: Guards say they are paid $8 or $13 per hour with no benefits or paid sick days, job security is almost non-existent and they have to buy some of their own equipment. But chiefly, sitting in the conference room, they complain about training and safety: This is, after all, a job outside high-rise project towers.
Some of the projects' residents, says one guard, have "got AKs, Uzi, M-16s, 300-round submachine guns... . They pull out one rifle, we all done."
"We're paying for radios out of our paychecks, and we don't even have radios," he says. "We don't have the proper response to police or ambulance. If something happens, you gotta call from your cell phone. When [a] guy got in a fight, stabbed in his side, stabbed in his brain, bleeding all over my [security booth] steps, I grabbed the radio, called for assistance ... radio's broke."
When protesting AlliedBarton, Rodriguez publicly targeted the universities and museum as much as the security company itself, and the strategy this time is no different. That means that aside from focusing on Garnett Littlepage, the politically connected Scotland Yard owner who donated $50,000 to the 2003 mayoral campaign of current PHA board chair John Street, the union will focus on a man who has made the front page of the daily papers every day for the past week.
On a large white piece of paper at the head of the conference table, Rodriguez writes, "Target: Carl Greene."
"Carl Greene needs this right now like he needs a hole in the head," says one guard. Indeed, PSOU's organizing efforts coincide with Greene's personal financial travails, including a foreclosure and a tax lien, which are being reported daily by the Inquirer and Daily News; sexual harassment allegations reminiscent of ones leveled when Greene headed the Detroit Housing Commission; and reports that Greene allegedly coerces his employees into throwing him parties.
PHA did not respond to requests for comment.
Rodriguez hopes to ride this wave of anti-Greene sentiment, and insofar as that is actually a strategy, it came at just the right time, though Rodriguez says that he and Scotland Yard guards had been talking for more than a year, and that the plan had been to file the petition around this time anyway.
This also isn't be the first time Scotland Yard guards have approached a union about organizing. In 2007, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began to represent Scotland Yard guards at government buildings around City Hall; SEIU now represents 110 guards in city buildings.
An SEIU spokesperson declined to explain why PHA guards never unionized. But it may have something to do with what the union is legally capable of: As a "mixed union" one that organizes more than one type of worker, like security guards and janitors, for example SEIU is prevented by the National Labor Relations Act from filing petitions to force union elections. The only way it can unionize workers is by convincing employers to let it happen which it often does by hitting employers' political pressure points. SEIU was apparently able to persuade Scotland Yard to do for its guards at city buildings, but not at PHA projects.
But PSOU, which only represents security guards, can force union elections and is taking that approach here.
The election has to happen between now and Oct. 8. And until then, Rodriguez will be out in the street, making sure the public knows about that bathroom.