Housing Works sets union election date after year-long organizing battle

Housing Works employees chanted “union busting is disgusting” and “fix Housing Works now” when they marched out of work and protested on the steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall in October 2019.
Photo by Matt Tracy

Following months of delays and stalling by management, employees at the Downtown Brooklyn homeless and HIV/AIDS nonprofit Housing Works will finally be able to vote to unionize in the coming weeks.

Labor organizers and Housing Works honchos have signed a new agreement that paves the way to hold an election by mail with ballots going out starting Nov. 20 and due back Dec. 14, according to a Friday social media post by the Housing Works Union.

A leader with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union — which organized the union drive for Housing Works — said it was about time workers can cast their vote. 

“It’s been a long long time,” said RWDSU organizer Adam Obernauer. “Let’s hope that there’s no last-minute pushback this time. We’re just looking forward to actually having a vote and workers having a say in the process.”

The announcement comes after a year-long battle ever since workers first walked out of their offices in October 2019 to address a wide range of workplace concerns, including too high caseloads, shoddy healthcare plans, and insufficient paid time-off policies.

The nonprofit, founded in the 1990s, provides support for some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS and experiencing homelessness. It also operates several thrift stores around the city and a bookshop and café in Manhattan to fund its services.

Housing Works staffers filed for an election in February with the National Labor Relations Board with more than 400 signed union authorization cards out of some 600 company employees.

Over the following months, organizers faced the twin challenges of the COVID-19 outbreak and management’s alleged union-busting efforts delaying progress by appealing to the NLRB’s Donald Trump-appointed Washington, DC, offices to toss the petition.

The mail-in ballots were originally supposed to go out at the end of July, but the nonprofit’s bigwigs and their labor law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP — which advertises itself as keeping workplaces “union-free”— filed an injunction with the board on July 23 arguing Housing Works’s business model has shifted significantly since it started operating two COVID-19 “isolation shelters” in hotels, employing some 80 people.

Given the many layoffs during the health crisis and the large number of new employees, the company claimed the earlier petition was no longer representative of its staff. 

RWDSU denounced the company leaders, especially CEO Charles King, for trying to delay the vote and dilute union support by hiring new staff.

The union also filed complaints with the federal board alleging the company laid off several workers as retribution for their union activity.

Housing Works president, Matthew Bernardo, at the time denied that any of the company’s 196 total furloughs and layoffs since March were a result of union activity, noting that they still employ union campaigners and that they were simply trying to have all employees have a say in the union vote.

The NLRB eventually sided with the company citing the long delays and the large turnover as a reason to re-negotiate terms.

The feds tasked their Brooklyn office, the union, and Housing Works management with drafting a new agreement which includes all new employees, which both parties signed on Nov. 5. 

King said in a statement the company was happy to have a new agreement, committing that they will be neutral in the coming vote and will accept RWDSU to the bargaining table, if that’s what a majority of employees want. 

“We are pleased to have an agreement in place with a plan for an election that will allow every eligible Housing Works employee working in New York City to make their voice heard, including our new employees who deserve the opportunity to participate,” the CEO said. “We have been neutral from the very beginning of this campaign, and that will not change. We have always wanted our employees to make this decision themselves, and we will bargain with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union if that’s what a majority of them want.”

However, Obernauer slammed the board’s decision as unprecedented, arguing that new employees normally join a union after a vote happens, rather than pushing back a vote and redrawing the electorate every time there are staffing changes.

“Given the far-right-wing tint of the Trump board in D.C., they made this decision,” he said. “We don’t agree with that, neither does 50 years of case law.”

But the labor organizer said they will now move forward and try to canvass all new employees to cast their ballot for the union.

“If we need to include all the new workers, we will,” he said. “We’re not about not including more workers, we just didn’t want these delays to happen.”


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