How Social Workers Unionized at Portland's Janus Youth Programs

What happens when social workers grow tired of poor working conditions and poverty wages? At my workplace, the nonprofit Janus Youth Programs, we formed a union. Now the 50 of us have a voice to improve our working conditions and our clients’ living conditions.

My co-workers and I care for children in publicly funded—but privately operated—residential and re-entry treatment centers. Our job titles include case managers, direct care staff, and relief staff. Together we work with adolescents and families who have experienced sexual abuse, trauma, and often poverty.

Direct care and relief staff spend the majority of our shifts making sure our clients’ basic needs are met. We prepare meals, get clients to and from school and appointments, pass medication, and are, for many clients, the most consistent positive influence in their lives.

But just like in other privatized industries, our working conditions have deteriorated and wages have been stagnant.

We haven’t had significant raises since the 1990s. Many of my co-workers, even those who’ve worked at Janus Youth Programs for close to a decade, are making just over Oregon’s minimum wage. Meanwhile upper management has continued to enjoy its perks.

Our working conditions are often very poor. Refrigerators don’t seal properly, dish sanitizers spray hot water across kitchen floors, insects infest buildings, and broken doors go without knobs. Instead of fixing these problems, supervisors often hide or cover up damage before inspections. At best they make superficial upgrades, like replacing throw pillows for couches.

For all these reasons, the decision to organize a union was an easy one.

For Ben Crocket, it was an experience of wage theft after taking eight clients on a three-day camping trip that led him to join the union organizing committee.

“When we were told to click in for a normal eight-hour shift, even though we’d been working every waking hour for three days straight, I knew something was wrong,” Crocket said. “The company was cheating me.”

That same year, 2014, Executive Director Dennis Morrow enjoyed a raise close to $8,000.

CLIENTS’ LIVING CONDITIONS

In the fall of 2014, inspired by the movement kicked off by fast food workers for “$15 and a Union,” several direct care staff including myself decided to organize our workplace.

We started by reaching out to the Portland unions involved in that struggle, but the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Communications Workers (CWA) declined to help us. One SEIU organizer told me, “We aren’t organizing nonprofits right now.” After several weeks of searching for a union, AFSCME Council 75 agreed to help.

Our initial organizing committee was made up of just a few workers from one workplace. With AFSCME’s resources, it became possible to build a campaign focused on all six of Janus Youth Programs’ residential treatment centers.

We didn’t try to sell the union to potential members as insurance or an outside organization to “represent you.” Instead, we focused on recruiting worksite leaders, trusted by their peers, who could talk confidently how forming a union would help us address problems on the job.

We always centered our conversations on the issues at Janus, though we pointed to outside examples of what we could accomplish as a union: Seattle’s $15 minimum wage victory and the Chicago Teacher Union’s social justice vision. CTU connects the corporate assault on education to larger struggles in the city.

Anti-union co-workers claimed they worked at Janus to help kids, not for the money. But organizing committee members argued, “Our working conditions are our clients’ living conditions.” We pointed to management’s refusal to address broken appliances, damaged furniture, and walls with holes.

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These conversations, giving voice to built-up frustrations, began to pay off. Our organizing committee grew.

CAPTIVE-AUDIENCE MEETINGS

Fear of the organizing drive spread through management’s ranks. Top managers met with all the supervisors, telling them they’d be fired if they helped workers unionize. One supervisor called unions a “cancer.”

The executive director toured workplaces and held mandatory, captive-audience meetings with staff. But instead of addressing the union head-on, he attacked the fight for a higher minimum wage, which in Oregon has developed into a statewide campaign for legislation.

He argued that higher wages would cause program cuts and layoffs. In at least one of these visits, workers outright challenged his lies, asking for evidence. Unable to produce any, he said he was running behind schedule, and left. His refusal to address the elephant in the room only emboldened the campaign.

Through the spring, the organizing committee grew into a representative body of the most militant workers from all six worksites.

At the beginning of June, we began collecting union authorization cards. The Imani House, the worksite where the union campaign had started, reached 100 percent union support. In all, two-thirds of employees signed cards.

We filed the cards with the National Labor Relations Board on July 6, and an election was set for July 21 under the board’s newly streamlined rules.

The week before the vote, management followed up with another round of captive-audience meetings, in a last-ditch effort to scare folks into voting no. This time attendance was mandatory at the meetings in workplaces where union support was believed to be low—but optional at the Imani House, where the support was overwhelming.

‘I AM OF VALUE’

Pro-union workers countered management’s bullying attempts with honest discussions about our decision to organize and why we had chosen AFSCME. In response to management’s message that the union just cared about getting us to pay dues, we talked about AFSCME’s contribution to the civil rights movement and its social justice legacy,

We also reminded people of their legal right to unionize. We told our co-workers that management couldn’t “SPIT” on us, meaning spy on us, make promises, interrogate us, or threaten us.

Meanwhile the organizing committee made a voter turnout plan for every single pro-union co-worker. We sent flyers to workplaces and people’s homes, with pictures of workers publicly affirming their commitment to voting yes.

Workers won the election 26 to 12. Our next challenge is to win our first contract.

We’re electing our bargaining committee and building relationships with Janus workers outside our union to fight united for better wages and working conditions.

Already, the campaign has raised our confidence and hopes. Rachel Mariscal said that organizing has given her the opportunity “to show my children that, as a single mother, I am of value.

“Having a union will mean not working three jobs,” said Mariscal, a direct care staffer who works an overnight shift three nights a week. “It will mean my children have a mom.”

Christopher Zimmerly-Beck is a relief worker at Janus Youth Programs and member of AFSCME Council 75.