Callen-Lorde Workers Vote to Join 1199SEIU

Member of the Callen-Lorde staff's union organizing team outside the Chelsea clinic. | 1199SEIU

Member of the Callen-Lorde staff's union organizing team outside the Chelsea clinic. | 1199SEIU

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | In a first in New York City’s LGBT healthcare sector, 174 staff members at the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center on January 13 voted to join 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.

That count includes the bulk of the West 17th Street clinic’s non-management staff, including doctors, nurses, social workers, patient care associates, and medical assistants.

According to a release from 1199, Callen-Lorde becomes the first health center serving the LGBT community in New York to embrace the union. Workers at Washington, DC’s LGBT-focused Whitman-Walker Health Center affiliated with 1199 back in the 1990s.

January vote makes Chelsea clinic city’s first unionized LGBT health center

1199SEIU, which represents more than 400,000 workers, most of them nurses and other caregivers, in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington, and Florida, describes itself as the nation’s largest and fastest growing healthcare union.

For a union looking to continue its rapid growth, Callen-Lorde — as a federally qualified health center providing what is known in the industry as ambulatory care — represented an attractive organizing opportunity. Economic challenges facing large hospitals that traditionally dominated institutional health care delivery coupled with specific incentives provided by President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act combine to make ambulatory care a sector of significant expansion nationwide.

1199 has organized more than 5,000 employees of federally qualified health centers in New York City.

“Nationwide, healthcare is shifting toward community-based settings,” Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, said in a written statement. “As this change occurs, it’s essential that this sector provides good jobs to workers so they can provide the best quality of care to their patients.”

Several Callen-Lorde employees involved in the effort to win 1199 representation emphasized that the organizing drive, which began last June when several staffers contacted the union, was relatively free of strife with the clinic’s management.

“For me, it was fairly tension-free,” said Rachel Elzey, a patient navigator who has been at Callen-Lorde for almost a year and a half and works with HIV-positive clients, providing a range of services from case management to education. “We have such a strong mission to serve the LGBTQ population, especially those most vulnerable. We wanted to treat ourselves with the same respect we treat our clients with.”

Ariadne Brazo, a mental health patient navigator who joined Callen-Lorde full time last May after interning there during her second year of graduate study at NYU, offered a similar assessment of what led employees to look to 1199.

“We felt that the staff didn't have enough of a voice in terms of our employment,” Brazo explained. “We felt the best way to do that was with a union and we felt that 1199 had a good history of social justice — which Callen-Lorde has as its mission.”

Explaining that she “shed anti-union attitudes” while studying the labor movement as an undergraduate sociology major, Brazo said the “biggest barrier” to educating fellow staff members at Callen-Lorde was “misinformation” about what unions are and what they do.

By this past November, organizers had collected union cards from a majority of staff, which management could have accepted as sufficient to recognize the union. Instead, the clinic insisted that staff undertake a formal vote. At that point, 1199 and Callen-Lorde negotiated a “neutrality agreement,” under which which management agreed not to intervene in the organizing effort. Two months later, the union drive achieved the winning vote.

“It was a really beautiful process for me to see personally, very empowering,” Brazo said. “I learned a lot about labor rights and how best to run an agency. It was overwhelmingly positive. That’s why I love Callen-Lorde. This whole process proved how dedicated to the community the staff is, just as management has always said.”

The success in organizing doctors on staff at Callen-Lorde also represents the type of new opportunities for growth available to 1199, which acknowledged it is not yet that common. Dr. Roona Ray, a member of the clinic’s medical team who was among the organizers of the union effort, was the first staff member to reach out to Gay City News, several days prior to the January 13 vote.

The next step for the new union will be sitting down with Callen-Lorde management to discuss the parameters of a new contract and to resolve questions of eligibility for a few employees not yet able to join 1199. Those involved in winning approval of the union said salary and benefits would be key areas of discussion, but Callen-Lorde staff now have the option of choosing a union healthcare plan if they are dissatisfied with the policy they’re able to negotiate with the clinic.

According to 1199, the new union members are also eligible to participate in a range of SEIU-funded higher education opportunities.

Management at Callen-Lorde, which has not yet met with representatives of the union since the successful vote last month, declined comment at this time.