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‘Do LGBT Rights Stop When You Get a Job?’ The Fight For Unionization At Housing Works

October 31, 2019

By Joe Maniscalco

Striking Housing Works employees gather on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall on Tuesday, October 29.

Brooklyn, NY – The head of a nearly 30-year-old institution dedicated to supporting AIDS/HIV-positive New Yorkers, this week rebuffed calls in a face-to-face meeting with frustrated workers to sign a neutrality agreement in their drive for unionization.

Housing Works CEO Charles King turned down workers’ plea on Tuesday afternoon and refused to accept receipt of what the union said was a copy of Unfair Labor Practice charges filed with the NLRB — instead telling a roughly 12-member worker delegation to leave the non-profit’s 57 Willoughby Street lobby. 

“I find the whole reaction to our desire to unionize — the negativity about it — just appalling for a human rights organization,” Housing Works volunteer Catherine Sullivan later told LaborPress on the street. “I just can’t put the two together at all. I’ve been part of this mission for 18 years; there’s just a disconnect between what they say the mission is — caring for every member of this diverse community — and then not caring for their own workers.”

About 100 striking Housing Works employees — medical workers, case managers, maintenance staff, attorneys, bookstore workers and others — rallied on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall just prior to the failed meeting with King, to denounce both management’s stance against unionization, as well as the poor working conditions contributing to widespread worker burnout and high turnover rates at the pioneering non-profit.  

“For all Housing Works says about its support of LGBT workers, why is it that they think we don’t deserve a union? Why is it that they think that LGBT rights stop when you get a job?” asked striking Downtown Brooklyn Housing Coordinator Brian Grady.

Thirty years ago, Charles King was part of a group of five Act Up activists who initially founded Housing Works in direct response to the AIDS crisis. 

Last year, saddled with exploding case loads, low pay, anemic medical benefits and a reported 30-percent turnover rate — groups of dedicated but demoralized Housing Works employees began holding lunchtime meetings on Jay Street to talk about organizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union [RWDSU]. 

A delegation of Housing Works workers heads to 57 Willoughby Street in hopes of delivering a neutrality agreement to CEO Charles King.

“All of us are here because we believe in Housing Works’ mission and we are moved by the fearless legacy of Act Up, and we care deeply about our clients in the communities from which we are part,” another Brooklyn staffer said. “But enough is enough. We cannot tolerate being overworked and underpaid to make huge sacrifices for the sake of the mission. We refuse to make due with less while the agency has the budget to continually expand and to hire expensive union-busting law firms.”

In 2017, the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe and Bar reportedly lost 16 employees in six months and was forced to operate for over a year without a manager. In the last four months of this year, workers there say that another 11 fed up employees have exited.  

Rather than support workers or listen to their concerns, however, Brady further lambasted Housing Works leadership for allegedly trying to discredit pro-union workers while “claiming a mantle of neutrality they don’t even believe in.”

“They want to take control of a Trump-controlled National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] to put us through a divisive election,” Grady added. “They’ve hired an expensive and notorious union-busting law firm, Seyfarth Shaw, LLC, to represent them — disgraceful. They’re spending good money that people put forward — through their donations; through our tax dollars; through the businesses 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. [Seyfarth Shaw, LLC] sound like a pretty big deal — if I wasn’t so mad about this, I’d almost be flattered.”

Housing Works CEO Charles King refuses to accept a neutrality agreement from pro-union workers.

On Friday, October 25, King sent out a letter attempting to assure staffers that Housing Works has “always supported and respected the right of our employees to advocate for themselves,” but admitted that leadership is refusing to sign any neutrality agreement. 

“The proposed agreement would require Housing Works to mandate that all employees attend a union meeting on their work time,” King wrote in part. “We see that as a tacit endorsement of RWDSU.”

King further wrote, “We also believe it violates your right to voluntarily chose whether to attend such a meeting.  It would also require us to provide the union with your home telephone and cell phone numbers even if you did not want that information shared, which violates your privacy and, again, violates your right to decide whether you wish to receive calls about the union drive.  It would also require recognition based on a card-check system instead of allowing you to vote by secret ballot.  Finally, it would prohibit supervisors and executive management from having any discussion with employees pertaining to the union, even to answer questions.”

That anti-union tone echoes the one that the Brooklyn Academy of Music struck just before workers there overwhelmingly voted to join UAW local 2110 this past June. 

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum jeered Housing Works on Tuesday for behaving “just like any other anti-union employer in corporate America.”

“Claiming you will be neutral, but deciding on your own what neutral means — and especially without a signed agreement — is nonsense,” Appelbaum said. “It is no different than Fox News claiming to be ‘fair and balanced’ or Donald Trump claiming he has a ‘very, very large brain’ — it’s all nonsense.”

Prior to dispatching last Friday’s letter to employees, Appelbaum said the union attempted to negotiate a neutrality agreement with Housing Works that “even for-profit companies who don’t claim to be progressive signed onto.” 

“We discussed it,” Appelbaum said. “We tried to understand their concerns. We then brought them a much simplified document to at least agree on some basic principles that didn’t include the stuff that Charles [King] had in his letter on Friday — and he knew that. He sent that letter knowing he was lying to you anyway.”

According to Appelbaum, it became “alarmingly apparent,” during negotiations that Housing Works “had no interest at all at being neutral.”

“They did not want you to have a union,” Appelbaum said. “It became apparent that they were trying to fool workers and the public into thinking they were neutral and still progressive — they were not.”

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum says Housing Works in not acting progressive.

New York City Council Members Ben Kallos [D-District 5], co-chair of the Progressive Caucus; Brad Lander [D-District 39] and Jimmy Van Bramer [D-District 26] also denounced Housing Works’ refusal to sign a neutrality agreement, with Van Bramer stating, “There is no such thing as ‘queer rights’ without ‘worker rights.’ There is no ‘social justice’ without ‘worker justice.’”

In a statement following the Brooklyn Borough Hall rally, King said, “We respect the right of our employees to engage in any lawful labor action, and we have committed to remaining neutral in this process. We have always been supportive of our employees’ efforts to advocate for themselves, our programs, and our constituency. In July, we invested substantially in employee benefits–offering more paid time off and assistance with student loans without increasing health care premiums.”

Workers have, nevertheless, filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the NLRB. 

During Tuesday’s Borough Hall rally, Housing Works staffers repeatedly paralleled their struggle to that of striking GM workers, Chicago teachers and worker “uprisings from across the world.”

“Just like class size is a determining factor in the quality of education teachers are able to provide for their students, caseloads are the same to social workers and care coordinators and clients,”  Case Manager Rebecca Mitnik said. “I strive to connect and build relationships with each of my clients, but carrying a high caseload makes it difficult for me to provide the quality care they deserve.”

Eddie, a longtime Housing Works bookstore and cafe worker who reported being arrested recently in Washington, D.C. advocating for LGBT worker protections along with King himself — said that it is “ethically and morally prudent” to “ensure the same here at home in our own house.”

“I find the outdated trend of making more with less has become the Housing Works goal rather than the innovate way to problem-solve and look outside the box with which it was intended,” he added. 

Sullivan further stated that Housing Works is suffering from bad decision-making at the top.

“Housing Works does not involve its staff in decision-making as far as I’ve ever observed; and volunteers don’t even get close,” Sullivan said. “In the 18 years that I’ve been there, I’ve been invited to a staff meeting once — for five minutes. In general, there’s a lot of talk about how we’re appreciated, but really, we want to be in the room where it happens — right there with staff. We want to participate in setting goals, gathering information, reviewing performance, choosing directions, criticizing management if necessary — just as they criticize us and recommend departure, as they sometimes get rid of us. And I think the union is the only way we’re going to get that kind of participation in decision-making.”

Appelbaum, meanwhile, lamented that Housing Works has gone off course since its founding in 1990. 

“When I sat down with workers several months ago, I was surprised — I had expected that an organization founded by militant activists would also be a progressive organization,” the RWDSU president said. “But as I heard story after story, I learned otherwise. Housing Works has strayed far from its values.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story indicated that striking Housing Works employees had attempted to deliver a letter of neutrality to CEO Charles King — the RWDSU said the letter was actually a copy of Unfair Labor Practice charges filed with the NLRB. The story has been updated to reflect that information.

October 31, 2019

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