By a recent Nonprofit Employees United member
I worked at a non-profit agency that offers permanent supportive housing for people that are homeless. When I began, this agency was not unionized. I loved this job, supporting folks as they begin to get back on their feet after living on the street. It was challenging – there were overdoses, severe mental health issues, suicidality. There were also special, magical moments and I was privy to the trust of some of the most interesting people alive. The agency does really good work.
In the initial process of unionizing I talked with dozens of other employees, many of whom view their jobs as their career. However, they didn’t feel supported by the agency. First there was pay – for example, a local hamburger chain paid their workers more and offered better benefits such as childcare and scholarships. Further, many of our employees couldn’t even afford a studio apartment in town and were forced to live in shared situations, or in cheaper cities an hour away. Remember – this is a housing organization and we had full-time employees that couldn’t afford housing.
Granted front-line workers in housing are almost universally underpaid – but unionizing improved it. The initial contract helped – pay increases for most folks, overnight and weekend pay differentials, clear and published wage scales. But the more obvious improvements came a year later. As our city’s economy improved and the organization began experiencing issues hiring new people, in order to offer higher salaries to new folks, our union contract required they first had to raise the salary scales for current employees. This led to more significant increases for union members and definitely would not have happened if we had not had our union.
However, unionizing is about more than money. It is also about a voice and respect from the organization. For the most part, our front-line workers felt expendable and disposable. High turnover was expected and there wasn’t a clear organizational effort to change this culture. Many of us went in hoping for a long-term job, but the daily traumas lead to burnout and feeling unsafe. Here is a space where a union can step in – it gave us a voice, it let us advocate for better safety standards, mental health days, and a sensible and fair scheduling process. It provides a venue to express our needs and forces the organization to not ignore us.
When I began, the organization seemed to focus on two things – quality programming and smart growth. Founding a union demanded a third organizational priority, its employees.