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A SAM at work. (IAMAW)

Earlier this spring, the Downtown DC Business Improvement District had to call off its annual power breakfast for the release of the State of Downtown report, worried that a protest by their red-jacketed Safety and Maintenance workers (SAMs) might make the mucketymucks in attendance uncomfortable. Their grievance: The 100-ish-person staff had narrowly voted to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in 2009, but the BID appealed the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling that the election was legitimate, saying they thought some workers had been intimidated into voting for it.

Well, the Machinists union is continuing to make the BID uncomfortable. Since May, Councilmember Phil Mendelson and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton have both sent letters in support of the SAMs’ right to organize. “The BID owes its existence to D.C. law,” Mendelson wrote. “Here it is the public policy that workers have the right to organize. I urge you to abandon the purposely time-consuming strategy of endless litigation that seeks to grind down the workers.”

In addition, the union drew my attention to BID president Richard Bradley’s generous salary: He made $405,437 in 2009, up from $371,631 the year before, and $300,489 the year before that. That’s quite a bit more than CharityNavigator’s calculated average of $280,000 for chief executives of similar-sized non-profits (they didn’t include deferred compensation, of which Bradley received $41,497 in 2008).

In a letter to Norton, Bradley wrote that the BID is fine with allowing SAMs to unionize, but still wants another election. “Throughout this long process, we have been clear to the IAM that we would drop the appeal and hold a new election at the earliest opportunity if they would agree, but unfortunately they have not been wiling to do so,” Bradley wrote. “Thus our only recourse is the lengthy appeal process.”

What are the SAMs’ complaints? According to one union advocate who asked to remain anonymous, wages are fine—-they now make $15.59 per hour, which may not be enough to buy a house with, but is certainly better than fast-food and retail jobs. The problem, this SAM said, is management’s attitude.

“It’s not because of the money. It’s because of the working conditions and the way that you’re treated,” he said, describing ten-hour days in all kinds of weather, chores that aren’t in the job description like delivering packages and checking parking meters, as well as retaliation against union sympathizers. Even if supervisors would sit down with SAMs to resolve their complaints, there’s no way to force change without being unionized.

“I think that’s the problem,” the SAM said. “Once you take it to management and they know, they don’t do anything about it.”

In a random sampling of SAMs on the street, I learned that they’ve been told by management not to talk to any media—-but also that they’re not of one mind on the union issue. “I’m with it, I just can’t talk about it,” one SAM told me. And another: “If it’s going to increase our benefits, to where we feel it would be better to have the union negotiate something for us, I could see where that would be helpful. But otherwise, no, I haven’t really seen that it’s necessary.”

Next step: A federal court ruling, by which time the union vote will be three years old. In the grand scheme of labor campaigns, though, that’s not terribly long to wait.