Accusations fly as elected officials join in Housing Works unionization fight
In an emotional confrontation on a sidewalk in Downtown Brooklyn on Monday, elected officials charged the non-profit Housing Works with union busting, while Housing Works CEO Charles King accused officials of being at the beck and call of the “politically powerful” Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
The pols marched to Housing Works headquarters on Willoughby Street with a letter signed by more than 50 elected officials calling on the charity to sign a neutrality agreement with the union. Signatories include Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Comptroller Scott Stringer.
Workers at Housing Works describe burnout, low pay, unmanageable caseloads and lack of training, and some say there is discrimination or harassment on the job. Last week, more than 100 of them walked off their jobs and asked that their employer “remain neutral” about their push to unionize.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said he was disappointed “to have learned an organization whose work and mission I’ve supported over the years has allowed a situation like this to not only manifest, but also fester.”
The workers were backed up by State Sen. Julia Salazar, who represents Bushwick and Williamsburg.
“It’s important that folks don’t have to work in an environment they don’t feel safe in, and that folks get paid for the work they actually do,” Salazar said. “We’re constantly fighting to end poverty and homelessness.”
King, however, painted the officials as hypocrites.
“The elected officials who signed this letter … largely dictate the salaries and benefits we pay and the workloads we must produce,” he said. He added that the budget for New York State’s Home Health program, which coordinates health care for low-income people with chronic conditions, has been cut three years in a row, “even while Housing Works has strained its resources to increase pay and decrease caseloads every year since the program started.”
“It’s these cuts that lead to cutting jobs and wages, or preventing us from increasing them as we would like to,” King said.
King, one of the original founders of the decades-old charity, said Housing Works won’t stand in the way of employees’ efforts to unionize, but won’t sign the agreement, which he said contained some “illegal” provisions.
The agreement would require Housing Works “to effectively endorse this union to its staff [and] provide material support to RWDSU’s organizing effort at the cost of our clients’ and staff’s privacy, even while denying our employees the right to a secret ballot,” King said.
One provision he said he objected to was the requirement that Housing Works pay employees while they attend a 90-minute meeting about the unionization process. King told reporters he hadn’t heard of employees’ offer to drop this provision. A union spokesperson told the Brooklyn Eagle that workers sent a delegation and showed him the amended agreement.
Public Advocate Williams attempted to get some forward movement, shaking King’s hand as he described workers’ willingness to negotiate the neutrality agreement. King did not appear to acknowledge the workers’ concession, however.
RWDSU said that the fact that Housing Works hired a firm notorious for union busting, Seyfarth Shaw LLP, shows where it stands. Seyfarth Shaw specializes in defending companies against employee claims.
Neil Reed, a mental health advocate at a Housing Works clinic in Downtown Brooklyn, told the Eagle that clinic workers didn’t always feel safe on the job, and management isn’t doing enough to protect them.
“We have incidents about three times a week,” he said. “We called the cops just this morning. If we had a union, we’d have a voice. We never see Charles [King] unless there’s an event.”
Reed said filing incident reports had no effect. He recently filed one because a psychiatrist “made a racist remark,” he said.
“I heard nothing,” he said. “That was three weeks ago. Did someone say I’m a whistle blower? Do I have to watch my back?”
King said that Housing Works would not disparage RWDSU or “retaliate in any way against employees who favor the union. And if a majority of Housing Works employees vote for a union, we will bargain in good faith. In the meantime, we will continue to carry on the work we’ve been doing for the last 30 years, providing housing, health care and other services to the most marginalized New Yorkers.”
The organization has long and lauded history of fighting for people with HIV/AIDS, providing housing assistance, social services and health care through clinics funded largely by Housing Works thrift shops and a book store.
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