By MALLORY GRUBEN
In a push to improve retention, workers at Friends of the Children in Portland are forming a union.
During an all-staff meeting with nonprofit executives on March 23, workers asked for voluntary recognition for FriendsPDX Union Network (FUN), a new union affiliated with American Federation of Teachers-Oregon. They also filed with the National Labor Relations Board that day seeking a union election.
The proposed wall-to-wall unit would include about 66 full-time and part-time workers in positions ranging from professional mentors to facilities managers.
Friends of the Children pairs kids with paid professional mentors for at least 12 years, no matter what. Those mentors, called friends, work with eight to 10 children, spending three to four hours every week with them or on their behalf. That includes connecting their families with resources like food or housing assistance, advocating for them in school, and going on fun outings together.
The “no matter what” part of the mission sets Friends apart from other mentorship nonprofits, because they are not “just another person that stops showing up,” said union supporter Katie Breeden, a marketing and communications coordinator who has worked at the nonprofit since November 2021. Mentors put children first, but they’re underpaid and often struggle with work-life balance, Breeden said.
“We want to be there for the youth and support them in the best way possible,” Breeden said. “But we also need it to be healthy.”
AFT-Oregon organizer Marylou White said an internal investigation found that the nonprofit has a 49% turnover rate. That makes it “nearly impossible” to meet its 12-year commitment.
“Kids who are supposed to have only one mentor during the course of the program now have four or five mentors. … We know that’s not sustainable for youth, and we know that’s not sustainable for Friends of the Children either,” she said.
FUN would be the first union at Friends of the Children, a national nonprofit with 32 locations across the country. Portland is where the nonprofit started, and it’s now the largest chapter, serving more than 350 children.
Traci Rossi, executive director of the Portland branch of the nonprofit, declined to comment on how it plans to respond but said the organization “looks forward to the opportunity to better understand the needs of our entire community, including our dedicated employees.” At press time, the group had not agreed to recognize the union voluntarily.