First Unitarian Church of Portland recognizes a union

Senior minister Bill Sinkford was more than a little surprised Nov. 18, when 11 of his employees at First Unitarian Church of Portland entered his office to present signatures demanding union recognition.

First Unitarian is one of Portland’s most progressive churches, with an activist congregation and a profusion of committees on social, economic, and environmental justice. Its parent organization, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, teaches that evil originates with “unjust social and economic conditions.”

Jason Chapman, Nicole Bowmer, Josh Mong and Kate Fagerholm fell in love with their jobs at First Unitarian Church of Portland, but were shaken last November when their efforts to unionize were opposed. Fagerholm experienced such a chill in relations with her managers that she left her job at the church as of Feb. 6. Coincidentally, church executives did an about face the next day, and agreed to recognize the union.
Jason Chapman, Nicole Bowmer, Josh Mong and Kate Fagerholm fell in love with their jobs at First Unitarian Church of Portland, but were shaken last November when their efforts to unionize were opposed. Fagerholm experienced such a chill in relations with her managers that she left her job at the church as of Feb. 6. Coincidentally, church executives did an about face the next day, and agreed to recognize the union.

But when church employees announced their plan to tackle unjust economic conditions by signing up with Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 7901, they got a chilly response from Sinkford and two other church executives: Minister Tom Disrud and Administrator Kathryn Estey.

The day after the delegation to Sinkford’s office, then- Local 7901 president Madelyn Elder got a phone call from Corbett Gordon — a member of the First Unitarian congregation who’s also a management-side labor attorney at Tonkon Torp law firm. Gordon told Elder that U.S. labor law doesn’t require churches to bargain with unions, and First Unitarian wouldn’t be recognizing Local 7901.

But that response missed the point, says worker-side labor attorney Cathy Highet, who advised the Unitarian workers. “The whole point of this exemption is to allow churches to organize their labor relations in accord with church doctrine,” Highet told the Labor Press. Just because churches don’t have to recognize a union doesn’t mean they can’t. Clerical employees at the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland have been unionized for decades. And Highet says even the federal rules may be changing. A December court decision more tightly defined the religious exemption: Purely religious workers like ministers wouldn’t have the right to unionize, but other workers, like groundskeepers or clerical staff, might.

We do not believe it is in the best interest of our church to have employees cut off from direct communication with management.” — Senior minister Bill Sinkford in a Feb. 5 blog post

At First Unitarian Church of Portland, 17 of 19 employees were in favor of the union: five administrative staff and 12 sextons (church workers who clean and maintain building and grounds and operate audiovisual systems). Despite the initial rejection, the union supporters kept on pressing their right to unionize.

“We’re doing this because we care that the church walks its talk,” said Sunday School administrator Nicole Bowmer, one of the leaders of the union effort. “If we didn’t care deeply about our jobs, we would choose an easier road of quitting and leaving.”

Bowmer spoke with the Labor Press in November, but said she and her co-workers weren’t yet prepared to go public, because of concern that church leaders’ refusal to recognize the union would lead some members to leave the church. Two weeks after approaching the church executive team, the workers made the first of several appeals to the church board. When that too got nowhere, in early February they began to contact members of the congregation they believed would be sympathetic, such as David Delk, a member of the church’s Economic Justice Action Group, and an AFSCME Local 3135 retiree.

“It’s outrageous for a church that values love and human rights to say ‘no’ to employees’ efforts to freely associate by forming a union,” Delk told the Labor Press.

With word getting out, Sinkford outlined his stance in a Thursday, Feb. 5, post on his blog: “We do not believe it is in the best interest of our church to have employees cut off from direct communication with management,” he wrote. “We believe that such an action would dramatically change the way we function at the church, taking us from a covenantal and relational basis to a contractual relationship and making the relationships between management and staff more and more adversarial.”

That afternoon the Labor Press left a message for Sinkford. Two days later, Sinkford reversed course, emailing employees on Saturday to announce that the church will recognize the union.

We know it was the congregants that made this happen. They took a stand on the right side of history on worker’s rights, and we’re grateful to them for taking that stand.” — Nicole Bowmer

“The Executive Team has weighed the social justice issues and our faith’s long-held support of people’s right to organize, with how it would affect our ability to serve our congregation and its mission,” he wrote in the email, which the workers shared with the Labor Press. “While we continue to question whether unionization is the best way to achieve the goals we share, we also recognize that a continued conflict will drive us further apart and begin to change the nature of members’ relationship with their church. Congregants come to First Unitarian to be nourished spiritually and to live out their values in the world, not to be forced to take sides in a conflict.”

Sinkford didn’t talk about labor in Sunday services the next day, but Bowmer says workers got hugs and thumbs-ups from members of the congregation who had heard.

“After 81 days of being told no, and then four days of emails from congregants, we know it was the congregants that made this happen,” Bowmer said. “They took a stand on the right side of history on worker’s rights, and we’re grateful to them for taking that stand.”

Returning a second call from the Labor Press, Sinkford explained the about face. “The issue was becoming extremely divisive in our community, with people lining up pro and con,” Sinkford said. “It just felt like there was more damage potentially being done than we were willing to maintain.”

Sinkford said there’s no disagreement about the need for raises for the lowest paid employees. For their part, workers say they want better wages for the least-paid, more affordable health care for all, written job descriptions, and the security of having conditions spelled out in a binding agreement instead of subject to change at any time.

“This is new territory for me and for the church and I think for our employees too,” Sinkford said. “So we’re looking forward to sitting down and getting started.”

EXTRA: See the blog post explaining why the church wouldn’t unionize, and the email three days later explaining why it would.

[5/14/15 UPDATE: Bargaining is under way, and the church is raising funds to enable raises. Details here.]

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