Wobs fight Quaker union-busting

An article by Alexis Buss on an IWW campaign at a Quaker-operated office building in Philadelphia. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1607 (December 1997).

Management of Philadelphia's Friends Center, a Quaker-operated office building which houses many Quaker and progressive organizations, has begun a plunge into the depths of union-busting in order to prevent four part-time front desk staffers from organizing with the IWW. Fortunately, the unbecoming attack on workers rights has not gone unchallenged - more supporters linked to the Friends Center come forward every day to encourage recognition of the union.

The four workers, who work evenings and weekends, sometimes in shifts of more than ten hours, decided to join the IWW and seek a binding contract which would secure their job and improve working conditions. They asked for voluntary recognition from their supervisor, Peter Rittenhouse, on September 2nd. Rittenhouse asked the front desk staffers to drop the union, but passed the final decision on to the Friends Center Board of Directors.

The Board of Directors met without being able to come up with an answer to the demand for voluntary recognition. A second meeting was called for September 25th, and front desk union member Susan Phillips asked permission to attend. She explained to the Board of Directors that not only had she and her fellow workers joined a union, but that they are the union and had no reason to reconsider their position. The front desk staff are organized and want come to the table as equals with management to negotiate a fair contract. Many members of the Board of Directors asked Susan questions, and she left the meeting with the understanding that in a few days they would decide their course of action.

Strangely, on October 1st our fellow workers received a letter dated September 17 (eight days before meeting with Susan) stating, "the Board of Directors of Friends Center Corporation is saddened by the realization that some employees feel it necessary to organize themselves as part of a larger labor organization in order for their concerns to be heard and to obtain redress for grievances. As a matter of conscience and faith, we believe that no persons should need an intermediary when discussing concerns, but rather should be able to gather `in the light' to discuss them... It is in the spirit of our belief in `continuing revelation' that we respectfully ask that you reconsider your proposal." This response, one so unfortunately typical of employers that have turn out to be among the most notorious union-busters, was somewhat unexpected after Susan's thoughtful explanations during the September 25th meeting. While citing Quaker principles of openness and free discussion, the Board totally disregarded the most fundamental points the union members were communicating to them.

The Philadelphia IWW filed a petition for an election with the NLRB two weeks after the Board of Directors issued their decision. At the hearing to determine an appropriate bargaining unit, management's attorney argued for including five more workers in the unit. One of the five isn't even an employee of the Friends Center - he wears a Willard uniform and works for a private contractor repairing heaters and air conditioning units at the Center. The Friends Center lawyer took exception to Wobblies' snickering at his absurd suggestion. Another employee management attempted to include supervises the front desk staff.

The Friends Center management, while claiming to be driven by a mission of conscience, has chosen to take full advantage of American anti-labor laws. They stubbornly insisted that we include workers into the unit who do completely different work and have clearly indicated that they have no desire to join the union. These workers share no community of interest with the evening and weekend staffers, and should not be forced to choose to either join the union or stand in the way of their co-workers who want to organize.

Having no faith in the NLRB's willingness to help us keep our unit intact, we tried for many hours to negotiate a settlement. The IWW and management decided on an unusual compromise: if the union can get five authorization cards (one more than the number of part-time front desk staffers) by mid-December, the Center would voluntarily recognize the entire unit management proposed, minus the private contractor.

The front desk staffers, joined by other Wobblies, have leafleted gatherings at the Friends Center to encourage support for voluntary recognition of their union. More than 700 fliers have been distributed in the past week generating an overwhelmingly supportive response. The Philadelphia Monthly Meeting called a "Threshing Session" which called for their representatives on the Board of Directors to reconsider their position. Dozens of supporters wearing bright red IWW buttons attended a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the American Friends Service Committee's winning of the Nobel Peace Prize. Quakers and progressives in Philadelphia and around the country have expressed their solidarity by calling the Friends Center.

Your help in our effort to win recognition is appreciated. We're asking that the Friends Center Corporation voluntarily recognize the union of the four evening and weekend front desk staffers and that they stop trying to include workers in the unit who have clearly expressed that they have no interest in organizing. Contact John Blanchard, Chairman of the Board, and Peter Rittenhouse, Executive Director of the Friends Center, by writing Friends Center Corporation 15th & Cherry Streets, Phila. PA 19102, fax: 215/241-7028, e-mail: fco@afsc.org. For more information on the campaign, call 215/724-1925 or e-mail phillyiww@iww.org.

-- Alexis Buss

Originally appeared in Industrial Worker #1607 (December 1997)