Working as a security officer at the City-County Building, you never know what you're going to see from one day to the next. But one thing Edward C. Millender almost never saw was a raise.
Millender has worked for Am-Gard, a contractor that provides security services to the city, for eight years. In that time, he says, his pay has gone from $7 to $8.30 an hour -- barely enough to keep pace with the rate of inflation. The job does not offer health benefits.
So in June, when union activists approached Millender and his co-worker, William Miller, about supporting a union, they were enthusiastic. A union, they hoped, would provide better wages, health benefits and a bit of job protection.
They got fired instead.
Miller and Millender posed for a photo on a pro-union flier distributed by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ. Just days after the flier hit the streets on Aug. 7, the two guards were terminated.
"[Am-Gard] didn't want us in a union. Period," says Millender, 64, of Stanton Heights. "They don't want you to have nobody to talk for you. And I think that's wrong."
The city is currently paying Am-Gard between $11.13 and $14.42 per hour to provide security, depending on whether the guards are armed. Am-Gard passes along most of that money to the guards, but keeps the rest. The contract to provide security at 414 Grant, where 13 Am-Gard employees work, cost the city more than $228,000 last year.
The SEIU's flier, headlined "Protecting you is our job, Supporting our families is our struggle," argues that too little of that money ends up in the pockets of those standing guard. "Am-Gard officers have a hard time making ends meet," the flier claims. "Like William and Ed, hundreds of other security officers protecting Pittsburgh buildings go without quality healthcare or a livable wage."
One day after the flier hit the streets, Millender says his boss showed up at the South Side Giant Eagle, where Millender also works part time. "He told me, 'You are not to go to work on Monday,'" Millender recalls. "'You are to go to [Am-Gard's] office'" in Sharpsburg.
On Monday, Aug. 10, Millender and Miller, 48, of East Liberty, met with two Am-Gard officials. "The first thing they did was shove the flier right in our face," says Millender.
Millender says Am-Gard was upset that Millender and Miller posed for photos in their security uniforms, which they claimed was a violation of the company's rules. Millender says he wasn't aware of any such rule, but Am-Gard had other objections as well. "They said we gave the union too much information on Am-Gard," he says. "They didn't want us to even tell [the union] how much we make."
Am-Gard officials did not return phone calls for comment.
After the meeting ended, Millender says he and his co-worker were told to go home and call the office later in the week. When they did, Millender recalls, Am-Gard told them, 'You're terminated.' And I said, 'All right, that's the way it goes.'"
Miller confirms Millender's account. "It's hard being fired," Miller says. While he's seeking other guard jobs, "It's a hurtin' situation. ... We're just trying to survive the best way we can."
"It's unbelievable that this is what low-wage workers in this country have to go through," says Gabe Morgan, Western Pennsylvania director of the SEIU 32BJ.
The SEIU has filed charges against Am-Gard with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that federal law bars employers for firing workers because of union-organizing activity. Am-Gard "restrained and coerced its employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed" by the National Labor Relations Act, the filing claims.
Morgan says Miller and Millender's plight should serve as a lesson for local governments. "It's important for the city and county to take a hard look at the contractors they're using," he says. "Contractors need to be held to a higher standard."
City Councilor Bill Peduto agrees.
If the security guards' allegations are true, "[Am-Gard] will have a lot of explaining to do," he says. "If contractors are practicing potentially unfair or illegal labor practices, we shouldn't be using taxpayer dollars" to pay them.
Peduto says he knew Miller, and admired his work. "I don't think you could find a better employee," he says. "He presented himself as a professional who loved his job. Every day he had a smile on his face."
The two guards have less to smile about these days.
"It's no fun," says Millender, adding that, for the eight years he worked for Am-Gard, he missed just two days -- after his wife passed away. "I'm used to going to work."