Officials of the Arc of Monroe County have been preparing for a union vote that could allow direct care workers to become part of SEIU Local 200United, and the non-profit's president says that would eliminate the flexibility it has now with those workers.
The organization was notified in May by the National Labor Relations Board that at least 30 percent of employees want SEIU Local 200United to represent them, triggering a campaign process and a vote today on whether 418 employees will be represented by the union. The vote will be conducted by mail-in ballot.
A second petition would permit 40 drivers to unionize, and an in-person vote is scheduled for July.
Barbara Wale, president and CEO of the Arc of Monroe, said that if workers unionize, it would jeopardize the relationships the organization has built with employees.
"We believe in individual relationships with employees and want them to have the flexibility to work on a one-on-one basis," Wale said. "A union would change the atmosphere."
The current relationship between management and direct care employees gives those employees the flexibility to work out time-off requests on short notice or make other special arrangements, Wale said, but a collective bargaining agreement with a union would change that.
SEIU Local 200United officials said they are seeking stronger protection for the caregivers, asking for good benefits, real job security and fair wages. The workers operate in difficult conditions and often work long hours, SEIU Local 200United officials said, and they can be put in danger in the work they do.
Drivers are forced to transport clients without the aid of GPS or a navigator, often leaving them to read directions as they drive, union officials said.
The union already represents direct care workers locally at CDS Monarch and statewide at other agencies that serve people who have developmental disabilities. SEIU has pulled together a coalition of supporters for the workers that includes local activist groups, churches and elected officials, including Rep. Louise Slaughter, Rochester City Council and state representatives.
Some activists have asked Wale not to oppose the union organizing and have taken issue with the Arc of Monroe's hiring Michigan-based consulting company Permanent Labor Solutions. The agency says it hired the company to inform employees about the union process. SEIU, however, accuses the hired consultant of creating a "climate of fear and intimidation" as it resists unionization.
Colin O'Malley, organizing director at Metro Justice, expressed concern that the Arc is spending money to hire the consultant that should be used instead on providing services.
"Barbara Wale has decided to ignore the outpouring of support from the community, including legislators, asking her to stay neutral in the workers' efforts to choose a union," O'Malley said. "The community has sent hundreds of letters and they have made calls to Barbara, and she continues to ignore them by paying out-of-state union busters to dissuade workers."
SEIU officials and other local groups have criticized Wale for what they see as pushing employees to vote no. Wanda Pillman, a 13-year employee with the organization, said the consultant group has posted information and talked to employees at the care facilities. She said workers feel "bombarded."
Because approval of a union will require only a majority of actual ballots cast, Wale said she is encouraging all workers to vote. She said this is the sixth or seventh time in her 34-year tenure with the organization when workers have started the unionizing process but the first time it has come to a vote.
The issue is more difficult because of a $1.6 million budget cut that the organization recently made, Wale said. The Arc was able to avoid layoffs among direct care employees, but the situation has put added strain on the organization.
Though the relationship between management and direct care employees could change as a result of the vote, the importance of the work the employees do will not change, Wale said.
"We're a mission-based organization, and our top priority needs to continue to be the people we're providing services to," she said.
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