When workers at Housing Works first approached our union, I was surprised to hear about the issues they face every day. Several members of ACT UP founded Housing Works in 1990 in order to provide housing, health care, job training, legal assistance, and other supportive services for people living with HIV/AIDS. Their 800 employees work at housing units, thrift stores, health care, and other locations throughout New York City.
We presumed that a nonprofit like Housing Works with a progressive vision would respect the right of their workers to join a union. We approached Housing Works management about a neutrality agreement to expedite the process for workers to make changes in their workplace, as we have done at many other places before.
A signed neutrality agreement ensures that workers can choose to support a union free of any intimidation or retaliation by the employer. Additionally, neutrality agreements can prescribe the process of how workers join a union. This is something that all major Democratic Party presidential candidates support. Other components of a neutrality agreement can include accessibility to workers and management remaining truly neutral.
In our discussions with Housing Works, we’ve learned that their progressive messaging does not apply to their own workforce. Housing Works management is behaving just as anti-union as much of corporate America. In fact, H&M, ZARA and countless others have signed neutrality agreements. Housing Works’ refusal to sign a neutrality agreement and their hiring of a “union avoidance” attorney demonstrates their true intent.
This is especially surprising at an organization that so many New Yorkers, myself included, so firmly believe in. What is clear is that Housing Works has strayed very far away from its progressive values in dealing with its workforce, and it’s deeply troubling.
On Oct. 29, over 100 employees at Housing Works’ New York City locations walked off the job to speak out about the working conditions that they face throughout their organization. Workers also delivered to their employer Unfair Labor Practice charges (ULPs) that they filed with the National Labor Relations Board. The fact that they had to walk off their jobs to have their voices heard was a stunning development considering that their employer has long been a progressive leader for social justice.
For months, workers at Housing Works have raised serious concerns to management about their workplace environment. With conditions only worsening, workers believe that union representation is the best way for them to address their concerns. Housing Works’ refusal to sign a neutrality agreement is hindering that process.
Housing Works employees strive every day to improve the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS, and their work makes a real difference. It’s not too much for them to expect that their employer lives up to the same progressive principles toward their workers. Housing Works needs to sign a neutrality agreement.
Stuart Appelbaum is president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union www.rwdsu.org. He can be followed on Twitter @sappelbaum