02/21/2013 01:58 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2013

Armored Car Drivers Try To Unionize In New York City

Armored-car workers in New York City will vote Thursday on whether or not they should join a newly formed labor union that hopes to get a toehold in the world of bank and retail security.

Employees for the international security company Brink's Inc. will take part in the election at offices in Queens and Brooklyn; the upstart Federation of Armored Car Workers needs to win a majority of votes through a secret ballot. If the union wins, it wants to ink its first contract in an industry that has little union representation in the United States.

"It's not just about us -- it's about armored car workers all over the country," said Frank Esannason, president of the new union. "We're an important part of the economy ... but the workers here are just not able to maintain themselves financially."

Despite the fast rise in online transactions, business remains strong for the large armored car companies in the U.S., such as Brink's, Dunbar Armored Inc. and Garda Cash Logistics, which provide security to banks and retailers who deal in a lot of cash or have ATMs.

The workers who drive those cars have weak union representation in the U.S., in part because of a particular stipulation in labor law. Decades ago, labor law was amended to discourage security guards from joining most unions that include non-guard employees -- such as a Teamsters local, for example. The idea was that guards are there in part to enforce the rules of management. The stipulation has become known as the "guard exclusion."

A lawyer for Esannason and other pro-union Brink's employees said the armored car drivers wanted to form a union that catered specifically to their professional circumstances.

"They feel like what they do is unique enough that there should be a specific union for them," said David Cann, a New York labor lawyer. "Like firefighters or police -- a union that meets their needs. The idea they have is to start something new that will change standards." According to Cann, 70 percent of the relevant Brink's guards signed cards authorizing the election.

Brink's did not return a call seeking comment on the union election. The Virginia-based company has a heavily unionized workforce outside of the U.S., noting in its most recent annual report that 56 percent of "branch employees" outside North America are members of "labor or employee organizations." (The percentage for U.S. workers who are unionized was not noted.) The company had global revenues of $3.9 billion in 2011.

Armored car drivers like Esannason are typically armed with a gun and bullet-proof vest, often handling millions of dollars on their routes between banks and ATM's. Esannason said that in recent years, crews have been trimmed from three guards down to two, increasing the workload while also making it less safe, he argued. He said that danger naturally comes with a job that involves so much cash, noting that a Brink's employee was killed in a robbery in North Carolina in 2008.

The unionization effort for the Brink's employees in New York has been bumpy at times, according to Esannason. The union filed an unfair labor practice charge against Brink's last month, accusing company management of "harassing, suspending and terminating" a pro-union worker, Marvin Francis, and terminating Francis' colleague, Jesse Ali, "in retaliation" for their activism. The federal labor board, which enforces labor law and oversees union elections, has not completed its investigation of the charge.

Francis, 31, said he'd worked with Brink's for five years, first as an ATM technician and later as an armed guard, before he was recently fired. He said that armored car drivers deserve better pay and benefits, given the heavy workload and danger that goes with the job. Francis said he made around $16 an hour, although many other workers earn as little as $11. Essanason said he makes $23 per hour after 19 years on the job.

"You'd think we'd get a better pay grade, but everyone knows it's hard to get jobs," Francis said. "I believe we deserve better. We can't rely on management to just tell us this is all they can give us."



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