Big Sister

The historically progressive YWCA fights a union drive.

THE SEATTLE-KING-SNOHOMISH YWCA is aggressively fighting a unionization campaign, leading organizers and others to charge that the nonprofit agency is tarnishing its reputation for social justice.

After losing a union election in May at Angeline's Day Center, a Belltown drop-in site for chronically homeless women, YWCA management has led a bare-knuckles fight against the union, employing traditional tactics like holding one-on-one meetings with supervisors and mailing letters to workers' homes. The YWCA says it's simply trying to balance the information workers get from the union.

An anti-union backlash is unusual among Seattle's social-service agencies, although not unheard of. By contrast, managers of the Fremont Public Association, Central Area Motivation Program, and Pike Market Medical Clinic remained neutral during campaigns that organized their shops in recent years. It's doubly unusual because the YWCA, the nation's largest and oldest women's organization, which provides a multitude of social services such as shelters for domestic-violence victims and child care, historically supports social justice. In 1968, it backed Cesar Chavez's famous grape boycott that launched the United Farm Workers union, and in April, former NOW President Patricia Ireland, a strong union supporter, ascended to the national YWCA presidency.

"They're doing stuff like the big, fat, rich corporations do," says Mary Robinson, the YWCA organizer for the Washington State Council of County and City Employees Council 2. She says she's been kicked out of a YWCA site and that workers tell her they fear for their jobs when she approaches them.

The YWCA argues that union representation would add burdensome costs, shrinking the budget for their programs, while union officials question how much the agency is spending fighting the organizing effort. Sherry Dawley, the YWCA's community-affairs director, says the YWCA's efforts are in response to workers' questions, adding, "People can interpret it in different ways."

THE UNIONIZATION drive stretches from Snohomish County to South King County to the Eastside, where YWCA locations offer low-income housing, job training, counseling, and dozens of other services. Union organizers are mum about which YWCA locations are targeted for organizing, saying they fear workers might suffer retaliation. The case managers, receptionists, and other social workers Council 2 seeks to unionize, numbering about 250, are principally motivated by a lack of control over their work sites, with traditional issues like wage and benefit disparity between workers not far behind, says Bill Keenan, Council 2 organizing director.

The YWCA has said it will not bargain over policies and procedures, but Keenan calls that stance "very premature."

WORKERS STARTED organizing Angeline's when program director Delene Rodenberg was fired in April. Rodenberg and her staff had just released a plan to guide Angeline's homeless women into subsidized housing at Opportunity Place, a Belltown multiservice center opening late this year and the jewel of the YWCA's $42.7 million capital expansion. Rodenberg says top YWCA officials did not act on the proposed plan, so she contacted other homelessness advocates to enlist their support and was promptly fired. Dawley says a $70,000 budget hole led to Rodenberg's dismissal.

After the Angeline's vote to unionize, workers say, the YWCA stepped up its efforts agencywide. Says Taharah McBride, an Angeline's crisis-intervention counselor: "The campaign is full-force against the union."

The YWCA is careful to note that it respects the right to organize, but it has led a behind-the-scenes campaign that has the trappings of a sophisticated corporate anti-union strategy. The organization has issued statements saying salaries and benefits could be cut, jobs lost, and striking workers "permanently replaced" if the workers were to unionize. Individual meetings with managers left many workers scared, McBride said.

The YWCA used similar tactics to fight off a 1991 agencywide organizing drive by the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU). In a new twist this time, the YWCA notes in a letter to workers that a majority of Council 2's leadership is male. But OPEIU organizing director Cindy Schu, who led the 1991 campaign, says "it's patronizing" that an agency that trumpets female empowerment wouldn't share power with its women-dominated staff. Says Keenan: "I was shocked that a progressive organization [would have] a common vision of peace, justice, and dignity, except for their own workers."

MANAGEMENT MAKES it plain it would like to see a repeat of the failed 1991 drive. "We have a particular opinion that employees work best when they work directly with supervisors and management," Dawley says. "We think it's best when outside people don't come in."

Organizers are planning to lean on Mayor Greg Nickels and other labor-friendly pols for support and to ask the YWCA to sign a neutrality agreement. "The YWCA will definitely be a hard place to unionize," Rodenberg says. "They rule by fear."

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