In March, as COVID-19 ravaged New York City, the 30-year-old HIV and homelessness agency Housing Works (HW)—well-known in the city for its sprawling health and housing services for vulnerable New Yorkers, politician-busting street activism, and revenue-generating thrift stores—stepped up in a predictable way: Contracting with the city and at least one hotel left vacant by COVID-19, it opened a medically managed residence for homeless people sick with COVID-19. It was widely seen as a humane solution to the public health problem of homeless single adult New Yorkers being crammed amid a pandemic into city shelters that sleep eight to 12 to a room.
But the roughly 90 employees hired by HW for the new shelter have become a puzzle piece in a two-year battle between HW management and about half of its roughly 800 employees, who turned in cards to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Management wants the new hires, whom it says are permanent, to be part of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) vote to join RWDSU or not; pro-union organizers at HW want the vote to be only pre-COVID hires, saying that, amid the social distancing of COVID, they’ve not had time to sell new hires on the union—and that they think management wants the new hires included because they’re easily swayable against the union.
“I believe the new workers deserve the protection of a union as much as any of us,” says Brian Grady, an HW housing coordinator and an organizer behind the union effort, which in October persuaded about 100 HW staffers to do a walk-out in support of it. “But what kind of messaging [about the union] has HW been putting forward with these new hires? How long is including these people going to [postpone the vote]? If HW [management] wanted to be working with us in good faith, it’d let grandfathered employees go forward with the vote.”
Another sticking point is that HW management wants the election to include the votes of a majority of the bargaining unit [those employees who can vote in it], while union organizers want a straight-up vote regardless of how many people vote.
A New Role for Housing Works
It’s all made for a very strange scenario at an agency that—since it was founded on a shoestring in 1990 by the openly gay and HIV-positive Rev. Charles King (who is still the CEO) and other activists from ACT UP—has not only grown into a massive, multi-pronged operation with a roughly $120 million budget in 2020, but has become known as a kind of scrappy David against the Goliath of the rich, powerful, and conservative. Its 1990s protests against the conservative reign of Mayor Rudy Giuliani are the stuff of legend; its employees are encouraged to take part in activism to the point of arrest for civil disobedience; and it is usually among the first (and loudest) organizations in New York State to rail against threatened safety-net budget cuts from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers in Albany. It has pioneered compassionate housing and health care services for active drug users and LGBTQ people, especially transgender people of color. It frequently stands alongside unions in its protests.
“I’ve been really surprised at HW’s response [to unionization efforts],” says union organizer Siobhán Fuller, a care navigator in the agency’s youth and prevention services department. This is especially true, she noted, having watched New York City’s Callen-Lorde LGBTQ health clinics, which sometimes partner with HW on medical staffing, unionize five years ago with relatively little resistance from management, which insisted on a formal vote but also signed a neutrality agreement promising not to interfere with union organizing efforts. HW management has refused to do so, saying it objected to some terms of the agreement.
“There’s constant [pro-labor] messaging from HW, and we all know its [radical and progressive] history,” says Fuller, “so it’s shocking that management, including founding members, seem to have little concern for workers’ rights and for making a workplace that avoids exploitation.”
HW management sees the situation very differently. “We have been clear from the very beginning that we are neutral in this union campaign,” said King in a statement submitted through an outside PR firm. “Neutrality means letting our employees make a decision for themselves. We’ve said throughout the last year and a half that every employee should get to vote and that we’d bargain with the union if that’s what a majority of our employees want. We have and will continue to insist on a fair and open election that reflects the desires of all Housing Works employees.”
On a May 20 Zoom meeting of the city’s progressive LGBTQ Reclaim Pride Coalition that included both King and Grady, King blamed delays in the union vote primarily on the upheavals of COVID-19, which shut down some (not all) HW work sites and, he claims, led to an agency loss of $8 million in thrift-store revenues, which he said necessitated laying off 29 staffers (mostly in the stores) and furloughing another 170—even as the agency was scrambling to open the new COVID-positive hotel shelter (whose staff is partly made up of those laid off elsewhere).
But union organizers say that HW leaders have not acted neutrally at all, noting that they’ve hired Chicago-based law firm Seyfarth Shaw, well known for union-busting (they fought against labor icon Cesar Chavez), and refused to hand over a list of employees’ contact information. According to Grady, they’ve also called meetings at various sites “and had managers who’d clearly been trained in anti-union talking points say, ‘Look, we’re neutral, but you might want to consider [if] you might be better off in other unions [than RWDSU].’”
Grady says that, if HW management really were neutral, “We could’ve worked this out with them instead of having to go through the Trump-controlled NLRB. Now our election is subject to their conservative appointees, and [Seyfarth Shaw] knows that’s favorable terrain for them.”
This author would like to include a disclosure and some context: After frequently covering HW for POZ magazine in the early 2000s, I worked for HW as their advocacy writer in 2005 to 2006 and have continued to both report on the agency (talking regularly with King) and occasionally volunteer for it, including its recent efforts partnering with activist Rhonda Roland Shearer getting free personal protective equipment to hard-hit New York City hospitals. HW has grown more corporate in the late 2000s and throughout the 2010s, often enlisting local celebrities for lavishly produced gala benefits such as Design on a Dime and profiting from Medicaid contracts for various health and social services. It has dwarfed GMHC in its budget, reach, and power and, with its leverage, has merged over the years with other HIV agencies, including, in 2018, the housing provider Bailey House.
Through it all, King has always communicated with me directly—and with a candor unusual for the CEO of a large nonprofit often in delicate negotiations with the city and state. This story was the first time he replied with a prepared statement via an outside PR firm, with more information delivered “on background,” attributable only to HW in general.
HW organizers give familiar reasons for wanting to unionize: For workers making not much more than $50,000, they say, they are overburdened, asked to meet steep quotas on case management with clients who are struggling with multiple challenges including homelessness or unstable housing, unemployment, and health conditions from HIV to diabetes to mental illness. Their health plans are skimpy, not covering the full spectrum of things needed by HW’s growing corps of transgender staffers and often demanding $50 copays for doctor visits. (Management urges them to see in-house doctors for $15 a visit, they say, but many don’t want to get their health care from their own colleagues.) In the early weeks of COVID-19, workers say, they were made to work on-site in crowded spaces. They’ve been given insufficient mental health support themselves as they work from home trying to care for clients whose lives and loved ones have been ravaged by COVID-19.
And, they say, their paid time off lumps together holiday, vacation, sick, and personal days but doesn’t allow those who want to work on holidays including Memorial Day or Labor Day, in order to save up time off, to do so.
With no union clout, “A lot of the individual requests we’ve made have fallen by the wayside,” says pro-union staffer Moriah Engelberg—despite the fact that HW management says it has an open-door policy for employee grievances. “Our health care isn’t very good, the paid time off system is insane, and the amount of work we have is simply too much. We’re much stronger as a collective unit than we are as individuals. The open-door policy may be true in theory, but it doesn’t seem like much gets done.”
Pro-union staffers also say they’re dismayed by a turnover rate of 30%. Management says that’s the industry standard—and that HW’s turnover rate would be lower if only voluntary turnover were counted. Management also says that HW salaries for case managers with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees are one or two thousand dollars higher than industry standard.
In a New York Times story last October on the unionization effort, King said, “Housing Works already pays much higher than the average salary for community-based organizations in New York City, and we already have much lower caseloads. So the likelihood that it’s going to dramatically change, that is just not real in a Medicaid-funded program.”
But union organizers said that how much HW ultimately has to give staffers in wages or benefits is secondary to staffers having collective bargaining power in the first place. “It may be the case that HW can’t pay anyone more than they currently do,” says Grady. “Maybe we’ll open the books and that’s what we’ll find, even though some people at Housing Works make a lot more money than others. But this is more about democracy and transparency in having that conversation.”
According to Fuller, a union might also have more leverage to make HW leadership diversify itself. CEO Charles King, President Matthew Bernardo, and Chief Operating Officer Andrew Greene are all white men. According to HW itself (in an email to TheBody), 51% of senior leadership is non-white, 72% is female, and at least 18% is LGBTQ.
Part of a Trend
Efforts to unionize at HW are in keeping with a nationwide trend among large nonprofits. In recent years, employees at such offices as the Center for American Progress, J Street, the National Immigration Law Center, and Lambda Legal have either unionized or are attempting to.
“What you’ve seen in recent years is a fair number of nonprofits with a high ratio of professional staff turning to unionization,” says Joshua Freeman, a labor history professor at the City University of New York. He called RWDSU “a very lively union” that’s been “quite aggressively helping organize groups that you don’t normally think of, like car wash, retail, and delivery workers. And their president, Stuart Applebaum, is probably the most prominent gay man in labor.”
Freeman calls the union push at HW “big, as these efforts go. The current union strongholds these days are the health care sector, with its nurses and doctors, and teachers and college professors—young, well-educated folks who go into professions that do good for other people. And that’s a big group.” And, he says, their efforts often highlight in their workplaces “a contradiction between the [progressive] value system that the organization publicly embraces and its treatment of its own employees.”
As for HW’s profession of neutrality alongside actions such as hiring a well-known anti-union law firm, “That’s extremely common,” says Freeman. “Most managers don’t want their workers to organize and try to stop it, but often they feel it’s smart to not openly say, ‘We’re against this,’ but to take measures to make it less likely to happen. Otherwise, they could voluntarily recognize the union—there’s no reason you have to go through the NLRB. There are a zillion ways that the law allows for delays and challenges [to a vote], making these things take forever. And if it takes long enough, often a substantial number of people [who wanted to unionize] are no longer even there.”
Then, says Freeman, “Even if it happens, there’s still the issue of signing the first [management-labor] contract, and a large percentage of places don’t ever get there. Employers are not legally required to sign a contract, and a smart law firm will tell them that a bargaining unit will be weaker if management drags out [the contract]. This is straight out of the standard playbook. Columbia and Yale [universities] have spent tens of millions of dollars to stop their graduate students from unionizing,” resulting in “an endless struggle that never gets resolved.”
If that happens at HW, says Freeman, “It could be terribly harmful. HW depends upon a donor and customer base that could be alienated [by perceptions of HW’s anti-union stance]. Unions have gotten very good in liberal areas at mobilizing politicians, and before you know it, you have city figures demonstrating, and that’s not good for an institution.”
Plus, he says, the ongoing struggle “could just tear apart the staff. There are a lot of bad things that could happen if everyone comes out of this with a chip on their shoulder.”