Housing Works Employees Vote to Join RWDSU

Employees at Housing Works succeeded after a lengthy battle to organize under the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Matt Tracy

Housing Works employees voted by an overwhelming margin to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), representing a major victory for workers at a non-profit organization that serves individuals living with HIV/ AIDS and experiencing homelessness.

Employees voted 88 percent to 12 percent to join RWDSU in a lopsided vote that sent a strong message to out gay Housing Works CEO Charles King and his management team, which has mounted resistance to the organizing effort.

According to RWDSU, contract negotiations will kick off next year. Workers covered under the bargaining unit include case workers, social workers, healthcare and retail employees, and maintenance and legal staffers.

“We’re proud to finally and officially welcome the 605 workers employed by Housing Works into our union,” RWDSU’s out gay president, Stuart Appelbaum, said in a written statement. “Workers experienced a needlessly long fight to unionize their workplace. Their tenacity and fortitude never wavered in this unnecessarily long process, which was stalled by their employer at every turn.”

The vote came more than a year after workers stormed off the job last October and marched to Brooklyn Borough Hall, where employees — backed by RWDSU — aired out their concerns about low pay, poor healthcare coverage, high caseloads, and other issues at Housing Works, which also operates thrift shops in multiple locations around the city.

Staffers went on to file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Brooklyn just before the pandemic temporarily threw the union effort into limbo. But King, who has received significant criticism for what employees have described as union-busting tactics, appealed to the Washington headquarters of the NLRB — a move that outraged employees who felt their CEO was turning to the DC-based board because Donald Trump’s appointees there could have been inclined to side with management.

“It’s about time,” Ella Evans, a social worker based at Housing Works’ midtown office, told Gay City News just minutes after the votes were tallied. “This could have been over a long time ago. They had so many chances and put so much effort into stalling and not letting us vote. But it’s what we need.”

Evans elaborated on what they described as “extremely expensive” healthcare costs for employees and poor benefits overall. They hope negotiations yield more improvements, such as hazard pay for employees who face COVID-19 risks.

“I’m chronically ill, disabled, and trans,” Evans said. “They make it so hard.”

Brian Fleurantin, a care manager at Housing Works’ downtown Brooklyn location at 57 Willoughby Street, reflected on the organizing effort as he celebrated the significant victory for the non-profit’s employees.

“I feel a sense of satisfaction and pride because we have been fighting for the past two years to get to this point,” Fleurantin said in a phone interview. “We were able to stand together with our co-workers and build unity and solidarity even during the pandemic.”

Brian Grady (left) and Brian Fleurantin (right) have played leading roles in the organizing effort. Matt Tracy

Housing Works management, which faced heat from the beginning when workers said CEO Charles King would not accept a neutrality agreement, acknowledged the results of the vote in a lengthy statement that insisted management stayed impartial.

“For two years as the union organized Housing Works employees, we remained steadfastly neutral and worked to ensure that every eligible employee had the opportunity to make their voice heard in this election,” Housing Works president Matt Bernardo said in a written statement. “And for the last two years, we have affirmed and reaffirmed our commitment to do what a majority of our employees wanted, and we will of course abide by that commitment in light of this result.”

Bernardo continued, “For three decades, Housing Works’ priority has always been our mission and the clients we serve: New Yorkers experiencing homelessness while managing HIV/AIDS or, more recently, COVID-19. At the same time, we care deeply about our employees, and we will continue to do our best to support and advocate for them as we always have.”

Throughout what has been a long and arduous organizing campaign, Housing Works employees and members of RWDSU have kept the pressure on management in the face of compounding labor issues. Most recently, current and former employees positioned a large, inflated rat in front of the non-profit’s South Slope thrift shop in September after Housing Works staffed the store with only volunteers following a round of layoffs.

But now, having made their voices heard at the ballot box, workers and RWDSU leaders are looking forward with optimism as they seek to carry their momentum into the next stages of their campaign.

“Together, [employees] are ready to win a strong contract that will only enhance their ability to care for the Housing Works community,” Appelbaum said. “The results of this union election continue to show that the best way for working people to protect themselves and their families is to join together in a union.”

Housing Works management, meanwhile, is vowing to work with the union moving forward.

“We promised two years ago and have repeated frequently since then that we would bargain in good faith with the union if they received a majority of votes, and with our work as essential as ever, we will work constructively with the union to achieve our shared goal of advocating for our clients as we always have,” Bernardo said.