Housing Works Staffers Protest Thrift Shop’s All-Volunteer Operation

Housing Works RWDSU south slope rat
Housing Works employees seeking to unionize sent their employer a message with a large rat in front of a store operated only by volunteers.
Matt Tracy

Against the backdrop of a massive inflated rat, current and former Housing Works employees huddled with union representatives outside the non-profit’s South Slope thrift shop on September 12 to protest the exclusive use of volunteers to operate the store.

The staffers, already fed up with Housing Works management after a series of recent layoffs, encouraged folks in the neighborhood to boycott the shop after it ended a months-long, COVID-induced hiatus by reopening without any paid employees.

“They opened a thrift shop using free labor even while laid-off retail workers still haven’t been given their jobs back,” Brian Grady, an out gay housing coordinator for Housing Works, said during the rally.

The organizers also used the weekend demonstration at the Housing Works outpost to continue demanding forward progress in their protracted union organizing effort, which remains at a standstill following surprisingly fierce resistance from the non-profit’s out gay CEO, Charles King.

Brian Grady and Brian Fleurantin, who are still employed at Housing Works, blasted their employer for delaying their union drive and using unpaid volunteers following a wave of layoffs.Matt Tracy

After the Brooklyn office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) gave workers a green light to move ahead with an election, King appealed his workers’ election bid to the NLRB’s Washington, DC, headquarters, a move that halted the union vote and has drawn stinging criticism from workers at the non-profit, which provides assistance to individuals living with HIV/ AIDS and experiencing homelessness.

“They’d rather ask the Trump administration[’s appointees at the NLRB] to protect their interests than bargain in good faith with their employees,” Grady added.

Those same workers who lost their jobs — despite King’s assertion to Gay City News last month that the laid-off workers would get offered an alternative gig — were outraged when they found out that volunteers would be running the Housing Works thrift shop at Seventh Avenue and 14th Street.

“With 24 percent of workers in NYC out of work, Housing Works should call back laid-off staff,” workers wrote in a flyer they passed out to pedestrians passing by the store. “We believe it is not fair for Housing Works to rely on unemployed or underemployed working people to work for free.”

Members of the Housing Works organizing group were accompanied at the demonstration by representatives from the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which has represented employees in talks with Housing Works management since last year when workers marched off the job and put their employer on blast for what they said were poor working conditions, pricey health insurance plans, and other complaints. The negotiations have made little progress, with union representatives stressing that King is stonewalling them at every turn.

“The bottom line is this: Every time workers at Housing Works have tried to demonstrate the overwhelming support the union has, Charles King has fought any effort to let his members have a voice,” RWDSU’s out gay president, Stuart Appelbaum, told Gay City News last month. “Time after time. It’s been consistent. Always with a different excuse.”

Former Housing Works staffers who have lost their jobs in recent months detailed their experiences during the September 12 rally. Emily Chiavelli, who worked as a Housing Works sales associate, said she was initially furloughed in March and subsequently lost her job in May when she quietly received a termination letter in her email’s spam folder.

Emily Chiavelli, a former Housing Works sales associate, said she got a termination letter in her spam folder — and her manager didn’t even know.Matt Tracy

“I texted my manager to ask about it and that’s how she found out,” Chiavelli said. “Housing Works needs to hire all of the paid employees and let them vote.”

In interviews with Gay City News’ sister publication The Brooklyn Paper this month, many former workers accused Housing Works of terminating them in retaliation for their union organizing efforts. Eric Fretz, a former Housing Works thrift shop worker who told Gay City News last month that he suspected his termination from the organization earlier this year was retaliatory, argued that Housing Works is taking extra advantage of volunteers to do work that was previously done by paid workers.

“Having volunteers is fine,” Fretz told Gay City News at the demonstration. “When I worked in Park Slope we always had volunteers in the store, but there was always an understanding that the staff did something. This is a completely different thing.”

He added, “Every word out of Charles King’s mouth is a lie.”

When reached by email, a Housing Works spokesperson acknowledged that the store is being entirely run by volunteers. Housing Works president Matt Bernardo said in a written statement that the store reopened as part of a pilot program to determine how volunteers can work with the organization “to sustain the thrift stores and keep providing health care services for New Yorkers experiencing homelessness and facing HIV and/ or COVID-19.”

“We’re so thankful to our volunteers whose contributions are helping Housing Works carry out its mission of fighting HIV/ AIDS and homelessness, especially through COVID-19,” Bernardo said. “Every single dollar that comes into this store helps us provide more services for those most in need during this pandemic.”

Workers, including those still employed at Housing Works, continued to express shock about the actions of an organization that once developed a well-established reputation for standing up for progressive causes and marginalized communities. Brian Fleurantin, a care manager at Housing Works’ downtown Brooklyn location at 57 Willoughby Street, joined the organization two years ago with that reputation in mind.

“This is really frustrating because this company presents itself as a progressive vanguard,” Fleurantin said as he underscored the way the organization has branded itself as one that stands up for racial justice and the queer community. “But they’re really underhanded in how they deal with labor. When we fight it, we can really show what they’re doing is wrong.”

The unionization effort has undergone twists and turns since it went public nearly one year ago when a wide range of local elected officials stood with workers and demanded that King stop standing in their way.

It was just weeks before the city was ambushed by the pandemic when workers filed for an election with the NLRB’s regional office in Brooklyn. While the pandemic temporarily paused the union drive, the Brooklyn-based NLRB office ruled on July 9 that the election should proceed.

Yet, right before ballots were slated to be mailed out, Housing Works stepped in with its appeal to the NLRB’s higher-ups in Washington.

Workers and union representatives are upset that Housing Works has turned to the National Labor Relations Board senior officials in Washington, DC, including appointees of President Donald Trump.Matt Tracy

Housing Works provided Gay City News with an email King sent to workers on July 22 when he said he was supportive of the right of workers to vote in a union election, but appealed because the organization underwent significant changes during the pandemic and he wanted those changes to be taken into consideration.

In that email, King lodged accusations against RWDSU, arguing that the union “feels differently” about allowing all workers to vote and “does not want our newest frontline workers to have a vote” because, according to King, the union did not want to consider the staffing changes that took place in recent months.

But workers and the union have drilled the message that King and Housing Works are deliberately trying to keep postponing an election at the direction of their law firm, Seyfarth Shaw, LLC.

For now, workers are anxiously waiting for the NLRB’s DC office to make a decision on Housing Works’ appeal — but they’re not getting their hopes up as Trump’s appointees at the NLRB weigh the issue.

“Considering Housing Works has been able to successfully delay the election, they’re setting a really dangerous precedent,” Fleurantin said.

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