By Don McIntosh
Following a string of union organizing wins among non-profits, Oregon AFSCME suffered a loss June 3 in a union election at Blackburn Center. Blackburn Center, 12121 East Burnside, is a combination clinic and residential treatment center run by the homeless services nonprofit Central City Concern. Way back on March 18—when AFSCME Local 88 asked the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election there—a strong majority of Blackburn Center’s 70 workers had signed cards saying they wanted union representation. By the time mail ballots were counted 11 weeks later, nearly two thirds of those workers had changed their minds. Tallied June 3, the vote was 35 workers against the union, and 14 for.
What happened? The same thing that happens at workplaces across the country when workers try to unionize: Employers use every tool at their disposal to talk them out of it, showing what an uneven playing field workers who want a union have to contend with.
At Blackburn, managers organized three days of catered “learning fairs” to provide what they called “unbiased information” about the union, and showed custom-made anti-union videos. Oregon AFSCME organizer Sarah Thompson says managers lied about the union at those meetings and created a hostile environment for union supporters, in violation of federal labor law.
“It was sort of like whack-a-mole trying to answer these arguments,” Thompson said.
In one video, Central City Concern CEO Rachel Solotaroff implores workers to vote “no,” and says she’s truly sorry if employees ever felt that she and other executives “didn’t care enough or engage enough.”
What’s so strange about all this is that AFSCME already represents about 300 of Central City Concern’s 1,000 employees. Their current contract runs through June 30, 2022. But when Central City Concern opened Blackburn Center in 2019, it declared that its newly hired workers weren’t part of the union bargaining unit.
“[The antiunion campaign] was really disrespectful to the other union members at the other CCC facilities,” Thompson said.
At Blackburn, Thompson says, turnover is high: More than a third of the staff that were there in November are already gone. Because many of their replacements were brand new, Thompson thinks some may have been willing to heed the CEO’s appeal to give her a chance to do things better—without the union.
In an unfair labor practice charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board, AFSCME Local 88 alleges that Central City Concern crossed the line in its antiunion campaign—trampling on workers’ rights and violating federal labor law. Specifically, AFSCME cites coercive rules and statements, and changes made to terms and conditions of employment to forestall the union campaign. The case is pending.
Thompson says as the vote neared, it was looking like a union defeat, but AFSCME decided to go forward with the election as a demonstration of how far publicly funded nonprofits will go to fight unionization. Central City Concern gets most of its funding from taxpayer funded public agencies, especially Multnomah County.
County leaders may be concerned about public funds having been used to pay for antiunion lawyers, training, and materials. AFSCME is working with Multnomah County chair Deb Kafoury on a resolution that would hold publicly funded behavioral health nonprofits to the same neutrality and recognition standards as public employers—if they want to continue to receive funding and grants for contracted services from the county. The County Commission would hold a hearing on the resolution and take testimony before voting on it.