Brooklyn, NY – Housing Works CEO Charles King is sounding “a lot like a person who really is trying not to have a union.”
That’s the conclusion New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams was left with Monday morning following a sidewalk summit between the non-profit head and elected leaders, in which King once again refused calls to sign onto an RWDSU neutrality agreement, questioned the legitimacy of last week’s employee walkout and accused state and city officials of being at the “beck and call” of the union.
Housing Works employees dedicated to the venerable institution’s 30-year mission of caring for New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS and other marginalized communities, began organizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union last year, citing the need to unionize in the face of unlivable low wages, high turnover rates and untenably heavy caseloads.
King, a founding member of Housing Works, has steadfastly insisted that the non-profit is being neutral during that unionization drive.
But on Monday, he left little doubt that he blames the failure of legislators to provide community-based programs with adequate funding for Housing Works’ problems — while additionally calling out the “hypocrisy” of elected officials who would show up at his doorstep with a pro-unionization letter bearing the signatures of some 50 city and state officials.
“I understand that RWDSU is politically powerful, that it makes election endorsements and contributions and other electoral support —things that a social service and healthcare organization does not do,” King read from a prepared statement. “So, it does not surprise me that many elected officials would act at RWDSU’s beck and call to demand that Housing Works do the union’s bidding without so much as inquiring of us and completely ignore the hypocrisy of demanding of Housing Works what you do not countenance in your own offices. And for those of you who signed the letter from the City Council, who voted just last week to keep a serial abuser in your midst, despite the protest of your staff.”
Dozens of New York City Council workers issued an open later last week protesting workplace harassment and calling for reforms.
King further stated, “When you are ready to take ownership for your role in a system that devalues the needs of poor people in our city and state, then we can have a serious conversation about steps we can take to increase the wages and benefits and lower the work burden and decrease turnover for New York City’s and New York State’s health and human services workforce even while strengthening the community based infrastructure that you so often take for granted.”
That didn’t sit well with elected officials, especially Assembly Member Micheal Blake [D-79th District], who argued that the State Legislature actually restored devastating budget cuts and called King’s remarks “factually not accurate” and “absurd.”
“I think you should be embarrassed that you actually have things in your letter that are wrong about what the Legislature actually did,” Blake said. “If you want to have neutrality — agree to that. Why not just sign the [neutrality agreement] document?”
King, however, views the RWDSU’s neutrality agreement as “illegal” and “wrong” on several points, including one that reportedly seeks to allow union organizers access to Housing Works employees during business hours.
“Even it were legal to do that, I’m not gonna tell any employee, ‘You have to sit and listen to the union,’” King later told reporters.
The Housing Works CEO also insists that providing the union with access to the building and employee contact information violates the privacy rights of both employees and clients. And that a card check union election would somehow be invalid — telling Williams, “As I said to you this morning, we don’t elect you public advocate by card check — aren’t our employees entitled to the same secret ballot?”
Be that as it may, as of yesterday, the exact language of the aforementioned neutrality agreement seems unclear. Both RWDSU and Housing Works have reportedly sought to negotiate terms.
“Workers should be able to organize,” Assembly Member Richard Gottfried [D-75th District] said on Monday. “I think that will make Housing Works a stronger organization and a more valuable organization. I know you’ve had concerns about some of the things that were in the first draft of the neutrality agreement — the union has let you know that they’re wiling to take some of those things out, negotiate others. I think that’s gotta come to closure so the process can go forward.”
But King later said, “As far as I know, what’s being demanded of me, as recently of last week, is that we sign the neutrality agreement that they sent over to us. We responded to them through our attorney [Seyfarth Shaw, LLC] with a draft and offered to reopen negotiations. They have not come back to the table.”
Chelsea Connor, RWDSU director of communications, says the union hasn’t heard from King since before last week’s employee walkout.
“We haven’t heard from him for weeks on this,” Connor told LaborPress. “We did present updated language around the neutrality agreement. We don’t believe anything in there is illegal. These are provisions that many companies have signed onto in the past. We’ve presented an agreement and they’re unwilling to discuss it in a real way. Some of the provisions they’re asking for are less than what the labor laws are in this country. So, how can that be something you ask for a union to sign onto in terms of a neutrality agreement?”
RWDSU Campaign Coordinator Adam Obernauer, also accused King of putting on a bit of a “dog and pony” show in terms of the neutrality agreement.
“He’s taking pieces from the original template we sent him and he’s saying, well, I could never agree to that, even though we’ve already said — and [RWDSU President Stuart [Appelbaum] has already told him — yeah, we’ll take that out, it’s not a problem. This is a negotiation process where we can work together.”
Organized labor, meanwhile, has long understood that the national rules regulating unionization drives are tilted in favor of large corporations and are in need of reform.
But, when asked this week, if he thinks those rules favor corporations — King told LaborPress, “I don’t see how it’s tilted in their favor,” adding, “Before my employees walked out, I sent a letter to every employee telling them that it is their right to participate in the walkout and there would be no retaliation and we wouldn’t do anything to disrupt it.”
At the same time, by way of further criticizing card check, King also suggested that at least some of the roughly 100 striking Housing Works staffers who demonstrated on the steps of Brooklyn Borough on October 29, may not have been there of their own volition.
“We had a walk out last Tuesday, something like 100 employees walked out. A number of them came back [and said], oh, I just did it because. You know? People were putting pressure on people to do that,” King said.
After listening to King’s remarks on Monday, Connor said “It’s clear that they have an “anti-union stance.”
“I think there’s a difference between what he’s using as the word ‘neutral’ and what a neutrality agreement really is and what it stands for,” Connor said.