NEW YORK, N.Y.—After more than two years of struggle and two delayed elections, workers at one of the city’s most important nonprofit social-service organizations voted late last month to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Staff at Housing Works, which provides housing, health care, mental health and drug treatment, job preparation, and legal services for homeless people with AIDS or COVID-19, voted for the union by an 88%-12% margin, the RWDSU announced Dec. 23. The 605-member bargaining unit will encompass maintenance workers, lawyers, caseworkers and social workers, and health-care staff, as well as workers in the bookstore and the dozen-odd thrift shops the organization runs to raise funds.
“This is a really exciting moment. I’m grinning from ear to ear,” Ilana Engelberg, a health-care coordinator in downtown Brooklyn, told LaborPress. “Hearing the tallies, yes after yes after yes… This is what the workers want. It’s such an amazing feeling.”
“We’re proud to finally and officially welcome the 605 workers employed by Housing Works into our union,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement. “These workers experienced a needlessly long fight to unionize their workplace. Their tenacity and fortitude never wavered in this unnecessarily long process, which was stalled by their employer at every turn. Together, they are ready to win a strong contract that will only enhance their ability to care for the Housing Works community.”
“We promised two years ago and have repeated frequently since then that we would bargain in good faith with the union if they received a majority of votes,” Housing Works President Matt Bernardo said in a statement to LaborPress, “and with our work as essential as ever, we will work constructively with the union to achieve our shared goal of advocating for our clients as we always have.”
‘Loving the Mission,’ Hating the Conditions
Workers began organizing in 2018, with the retail staff at first contacting RWDSU separately from the office and professional staff, says Engelberg. Union supporters were motivated, she explains, by “seeing how high the turnover was, seeing how high the workload was, seeing how low the pay was—but really loving the mission.”
They didn’t expect resistance at first. Housing Works, founded in 1990, grew out of the militant AIDS-activist group ACT UP, at a time when the disease was a near-certain death sentence, particularly for homeless people and needle-drug users. It now describes itself as “a healing community of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS” that has “addressed the needs of over 30,000 individuals that other organizations deem ‘too challenging’ to serve.”
Housing Works was also a pioneer of the concept of “harm reduction,” that if drug users are not willing or able to quit, it’s still healthier for them to shoot up with a clean needle than to spread AIDS by sharing a contaminated one.
“Dead addicts don’t recover,” cofounder Keith Cylar told this reporter in 1993, when Housing Works was encountering resistance to its plans to open a shelter on the Lower East Side.
More recently, in early October 2019, Housing Works organized a protest near the Supreme Court during oral arguments in the Bostock v. Clayton County case, demanding that it rule that the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s ban on employment discrimination on the basis of sex extends to sexual orientation and gender identity. More than 500 people marched, and 133 were arrested in a civil-disobedience action.
Given that background, Engelberg says, “we thought that Housing Works would agree to a neutrality agreement.” They came close a few times, she adds, but never did.
Instead, management hired the Seyfarth Shaw law firm, which boasts “one of the most extensive practices in the U.S.” defending against neutrality, card-check demands, and “other innovative union pressure tactics.” On Oct. 25, 2019, CEO Charles King, one of the group’s cofounders, sent a message to staff saying he would not sign any neutrality agreement that would allow union organizers access to the premises, would require Housing Works to give employees’ phone numbers to the union, ordain that workers could win union recognition by card check, or prohibit supervisors from discussing the union with employees.
Four days later, about 100 workers walked out and unsuccessfully tried to deliver an unfair-labor-practice complaint to King. Appelbaum told them that Housing Works was behaving “just like any other anti-union employer in corporate America.”
Bernardo insisted in his statement that management “remained steadfastly neutral and worked to ensure that every eligible employee had the opportunity to make their voice heard in this election. And for the last two years, we have affirmed and reaffirmed our commitment to do what a majority of our employees wanted, and we will of course abide by that commitment in light of this result.”
The neutrality talks foundered a couple months later, the union says, when management insisted that in order to win recognition, the RWDSU would have to win a majority of all staff, not just a majority of those who voted. In February, after King again refused to recognize the union voluntarily, the union filed for an election at the National Labor Relations Board. Voting was scheduled to begin March 20.
But on March 19, the NLRB postponed all union elections nationwide because of the COVID-19 epidemic. Meanwhile, after the epidemic intensified, Housing Works laid off almost 200 retail workers and closed three of its 15 shops.
When talks resumed in May, management insisted that workers at its newly opened shelters for homeless people with COVID-19 be included in the bargaining unit. The union objected, on the grounds that those new workers hadn’t signed the petition for an election.
In early July, the NLRB’s Brooklyn regional office rejected Housing Works’ claims, and ordered ballots to be sent out on July 31. Management appealed to the national board in Washington, asking it to order the union to start the entire card-signing process from scratch. The board remanded the case back to Brooklyn, which eventually scheduled the election for December.
“The new people were drawn into the fold,” says Engelberg, as the pandemic amplified issues of safety and job security. “We needed a union before this, and this only highlighted why it’s important for us to have a say in our workplace conditions.”