housing works

After months of pushing to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, Housing Works employees Feb. 14 filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board—a day after the nonprofit refused to voluntarily recognize the union.

The union, which represents about 60,000 retail, grocery store, bakery and dairy-processing employees across the country, stated that for six months, Housing Works employees tried to no avail to get the organization’s CEO, Charles King, to sign a neutrality agreement. When management refused to formally recognize that the majority of employees voted to join RWDSU, a group of Housing Works staff who are based at the nonprofit’s downtown Brooklyn headquarters on Valentine’s Day filed more than 400 union cards at a nearby NLRB office.

‘Progressive? Not’

“Workers stood before their employer, with a majority of workers supporting the union; but their so-called progressive employer leaned back and said no to recognizing their union,” said the union’s President Stuart Appelbaum. “The workers have demonstrated that they do want a union—and Charles King refuses to accept their decision.”

In a statement, Mr. King said that Housing Works would commit to “bargain in good faith if a majority of our employees in an appropriate unit vote for [a] union.”

“As we have told our employees throughout this process, we want to do what the majority of them want within the legal guidelines established by the NLRB,” he said. He added that the organization would focus on increasing government funding, which Mr. King believed was the root of many of the workplace problems.

Adam Obernauer, RWDSU Director of Retail Organizing, stated that the union was initially hesitant to file with the NLRB because “we wanted to find a process that was mutually agreed upon, and was less stringent [than] the strict guidelines of the NLRB.”

A spokeswoman for the union stated that it was waiting for an election date to be chosen, and expected to hear back from the Board this week.

650 Workers in Unit

About 650 employees, including attorneys, social workers and maintenance workers, work for the nonprofit, which provides housing, health care and legal services to those living with HIV and AIDS.

Employees raised issues such as low pay, a lack of paid time off, and safety issues including sexual harassment as reasons why they wanted to unionize. Late last October, about 100 employees walked off the job and rallied at Brooklyn Borough Hall.

Robert Shade Rivera works as a Peer Navigator at Housing Works’s Positive Health Project, which provides services for drug users such as syringe exchanges, health education and overdose prevention. He became involved with organizing members a few months ago when he saw high turnover rates among his colleagues, and heavy caseloads thanks to the opioid crisis.

Job ‘Takes a Toll’

“When you look at our principles and the work we do, such as linking clients to appropriate medical care, that takes a toll on people,” he said during a phone interview.

Mr. Rivera said that it was “disheartening” to see Housing Works’s resistance to the unionization effort, particularly because staff constantly worked to improve other people’s lives.

“We don’t want to change the culture of Housing Works. We want an equal piece, not to take a piece from anyone else,” he said. “And at the end of the day, improving our situation is about the clients.”

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