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For union, pragmatism vs. principle

SEIU is active in 1 recruiting drive in Phila., but abandoned another.

Two Philadelphia companies and one of the nation's largest labor unions - led by a former Philadelphian - are at the heart of fiery debate about union tactics.

The union is the purple-shirted, 1.7-million-member Service Employees International Union, led by Andy Stern, a dynamic University of Pennsylvania graduate who got his start in organized labor by heading a social workers' union local in Philadelphia.

The two companies are national giants - the food-service monolith Aramark Inc., with its Center City office tower, and one of the nation's largest providers of security guards, AlliedBarton Security Services L.P., of King of Prussia.

The debate centers on whether it's a sellout for unions to agree, sometimes secretly, with big employers to limit their recruitment drives in some locations in return for more access elsewhere, or whether those deals are simple pragmatism at a time of declining union enrollment and continuing corporate opposition to unions.

Consider, for a moment, two Service Employees' efforts to organize security guards in Philadelphia.

Last week, with the Liberty Bell as a backdrop and the requisite politicians and posters, the SEIU announced a national push to organize Wackenhut Corp. guards, including those at Independence Hall.

By contrast, the same union, in a move that stunned local labor activists, pulled out of an active campaign to organize area AlliedBarton guards at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University.

"It almost killed our campaign," said Thomas Robinson, a Penn security guard.

SEIU had cut a deal with AlliedBarton. In return for exiting Philadelphia in 2006, the union said it was able to unionize 8,000 security guards in Boston, Los Angeles, Washington and Seattle.

These kinds of deals - called neutrality agreements - are increasingly common. The trade-off is labor peace for the companies in return for their allowing access to union organizers.

But what has come to light lately - largely through publicity generated by Stern's opposition within his union - are some of the terms negotiated as part of "labor peace."

Among the most controversial are confidentiality provisions, particularly about the union's willingness to restrict its organizing efforts.

In these agreements, unions and companies skip the National Labor Relations Board election process in favor of simply allowing workers to sign cards if they want a union.

"Thousands of workers have won a voice in a short period of time, which is a success story," said SEIU spokesman Andrew McDonald, defending the deals.

"The story is about workers in hard-to-organize businesses who are going up against the largest multinationals in the world," he said.

Indeed, unions struggle to organize security guards and food-service workers. That's because they work in high turnover jobs, in scattered geographic locations, and in subcontracted situations, where any increase in pay may cost the contractor business.

"We've had 30 years of unsuccessful organizing in the private sector," said Jeffrey Keefe, a Rutgers University professor of labor and employment relations.

"Militancy hasn't really worked. It's not as if labor hasn't tried a number of strategies, but none of them have been particularly successful."

In 2005, the SEIU began an effort to organize AlliedBarton security guards, embarking on its typical creative and strategic approach.

Like any start-up on the business side, the SEIU carefully researched the industry, market conditions, major employers, potential allies, government pressure points, and the workforce demographics.

All that came into play in May 2005, when the SEIU worked with the local activist group Jobs With Justice and student organizations to hold a hip-hop open-mike night in a city club designed to attract young African American guards like Robinson.

But by August 2006, the SEIU had pulled out. "No one returned a phone call," said Robinson, the security guard.

SEIU's move shocked local labor activists. It seemed almost counter to the DNA of union organizing. If a union has eager and committed workers, outside support, and dialogue with the company, why quit?

"It felt like they pulled the rug out from under us," said union carpenter John Prisk, a Temple engineering major and campaign activist.

Unions have "represented our guards forever," said AlliedBarton chairman and chief executive officer Bill Whitmore, citing collective-bargaining agreements in several cities. He said SEIU's drive never gained traction here.

As the local AlliedBarton deal played out, Jobs With Justice coordinator Fabricio Rodriguez struggled to come to terms with what happened.

"At first I thought it was pragmatic - a union making sacrifices for a bigger thing that's going on," said Rodriguez, who had worked on the SEIU-led campaign and is now mobilizing community and student pressure to win gains in wages and working conditions for the guards.

"But our worker-leaders faced consequences that were more than our little community group could handle. Activists got moved off contracts, got their hours cut, and the company found ways to get them fired" - allegations the company denied.

"Now it's harder to cut that math," Rodriguez said. "I just don't see how fair it was."

The SEIU withdrawal in Philadelphia is the kind of story likely to come up next month at the SEIU's convention in Puerto Rico - bad publicity at a time when the union and Stern are poised to be major players in the forthcoming presidential election.

"I don't think any union leader should have the authority to limit the workers to cut that kind of deal," said Sal Rosselli, an outspoken critic who runs a large SEIU affiliate, United Health Care Workers West, in California.

"It's wrong," he said.

In 2005, Aramark entered into a neutrality agreement with SEIU and UniteHere, another union, Aramark spokeswoman Kristine Grow said.

Aramark, which provides food service at colleges, ballparks, companies and schools, would remain neutral in union-organizing drives, if their clients agreed.

In 2006, Aramark decided to terminate the neutrality agreement, which expired last summer. Since then, SEIU has applied hard pressure to the company. An SEIU Web site,

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., solicits complaints about ballpark food.

"We fully respect and recognize our employees' right to choose a union," Aramark's Grow said. But the SEIU's current campaign "has nothing to do with the quality of our services or our workplace practices. It's all about getting the company to agree to their demands."

Meanwhile, as summer tourists throng to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, Wackenhut security guard Charlie Wilson hopes SEIU's drive will succeed.

The Florida company said 25 percent of its guards were union members.

"We have no sick days," Wilson complained, and the money the company gives him for health benefits does not cover the cost of the insurance he must pay as a diabetic.

"SEIU won't be bullied around by Wackenhut," Wilson said. "They are a strong union. They have our backs if anything does happen."