Pro-union employees at Housing Works rally on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall in October.

Reporter’s Notebook

New York, NY – In response to hard-pressed staffers seeking to organize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union [RWDSU], Housing Works — the venerable nonprofit dedicated to aiding marginalized New York City communities — did what a lot of corporations do in the face of employee uprisings — they hired a high-powered group of anti-union attorneys to put workers in check. 

Housing Workers CEO and Co-Founder Charles King crowed about hiring the law firm of Seyfarth Shaw, LLC in response to the unionization drive, telling elected officials allied with workers during a contentious sidewalk summit held last month in Brooklyn, that the union would “do well not to bash us for hiring an employer side attorney who we hired because he has negotiated over 350 successful neutrality agreements.”

King and Housing Works are not alone. According to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute [EPI] and Oregon University, employers spend almost $340 million a year on anti-union lawyers and consultants to help prevent employees from organizing. 

Downtown Brooklyn Housing Coordinator Brian Grady called Housing Works decision to hire Seyfarth Shaw, LLC “disgraceful” during a one-day strike and rally on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall on October 29. 

“They want to take control of a Trump-controlled National Labor Relations Board to put us through a divisive election,” Brady said. “They’ve hired an expensive and notorious union-busting law firm — Seyfarth Shaw, LLC — to represent them. They’re spending good money that people put forward through their donations, through our tax dollars, through the businesses the Housing Works runs in the middle of a housing crisis — and spending that money on corporate law firms who’ve had their [boots] on the necks of working class people since before my mother was born. These guys sound like a pretty big deal — if I wasn’t so mad about this, I’d almost be flattered.”

Still another Housing Works staffer said, “We refuse to make due with less while the agency has the budget to continually expand and to hire expensive union-busting law firms.”

King has maintained that his organization is steadfastly upholding the mantle of “neutrality” during the ongoing unionizing campaign at Housing Works, even as he dismisses aspects of those organizing efforts as “wrong” and accuses worker-friendly elected officials of “doing the union’s bidding.” 

Earlier this year, pro-union workers at another seemingly progressive institution —the Brooklyn Academy of Music — accused their bosses of attempting to undermine the merits of unionization and collective bargaining under a “cloak of neutrality.”

BAM staffer Emily Searles told LaborPress in June that although the bosses’ response to their union drive didn’t involve “blatant captive audience sessions” — it was very clear what was going on. 

“Management will send emails saying, ‘We just want you to know the facts’….but they only highlight the negative possibilities of unionizing or misrepresenting what unions actually do for you — it’s still very one sided,” Searles said. 

A 2009 EPI study found that employers actually held captive audience meetings in a whopping 89-percent of union election campaigns conducted between 1999 and 2003. 

But when asked last month if he felt that the rules governing organizing drives were tilted in favor of the bosses — King said, “I don’t see how it’s tilted in their favor.”

Interestingly, King has said that Housing Works is “happy to sign a neutrality agreement [with RWDSU] that is truly neutral” — but that he refuses to sign any neutrality agreement that “mandates my employees, on company time, sit through a 90 minute union indoctrination.”

Often times, there’s nothing ambiguous about the aims of union-busting bosses.

Beyond the millions of dollars spent on union-busting law firms — the EPI’s latest report finds that employers were charged with violating federal law in 41.5-percent of all union election campaigns in 2016 and 2017. Employers were charged with illegally firing workers; illegally coercing, threatening or retaliating against workers or illegally disciplining workers for supporting a union — in nearly a third of all NLRB-supervised elections. 

“Employers routinely threaten, intimidate, and fire workers when they try to form a union at their workplace,” Celine McNicholas, co-author of the EPI report said in a statement. “Employers face few consequences because our current labor law fails to provide workers meaningful protections.”

McNicholas stressed that the findings should “sound the alarm for policymakers and underscore the need for significant labor law reform to hold employers accountable and restore workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain.”

BAM staffers ultimately voted — 119 to 26 — to unionize with UAW Local 2110.

Whether or not Housing Works staffers vote to organize with RWDSU remains to be seen. 


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