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Will there be a union at Northcoast Children’s Services?

Last Thursday night, inside the slightly musty old hall of the Labor Temple in Eureka, about a dozen employees from Northcoast Children’s Services gathered at a long table with a couple of representatives from the California Federation of Teachers. The reps had driven up that day from San Francisco through a winter storm that cleared as they reached Eureka.

Inside the hall, the worker-organizers -- everyone from a cook to classroom teachers -- spoke about why they wanted to form a union. It wasn’t that they were unhappy with their jobs. But there were issues.

“There’s a lot of secretive stuff that I think goes on,” said Jennifer Turley, center director for Fortuna Head Start. “For instance, a person went on vacation recently and came back and was told their job had been eliminated, and someone was handed a job that basically was the same job.”

“There’s a lack of transparency both in budget and personnel procedures,” said Susan Hiler, a literacy specialist and English-learner specialist. “For instance, until I got that information on voting [in the union election], I didn’t know that my position had a 1, 2 and 3. I’ve never been told that. I’ve never known that there’s a possibility for me to move from a 1 to a 2 to a 3, as a specialist.”

“In the past they did give us salary schedules,” said Turley. “When I asked for it at a recent board meeting I was told no, it was all confidential. When I said, well, how come? ... I never got a response.”

“I think sometimes also it’s not so much a specific complaint but just wanting enfranchisement,” said Hiler. “This is a huge agency; it shouldn’t be run by four or five people. Everyone should have a voice. The counter opinion from anti-union people is they feel they have a voice, and they can talk to whomever. I think the point of view that’s different is, we want a collective voice, because it’s stronger.

“I have no complaints. I love my job. But what I see is a lack of enfranchisement for a majority of the employees. And I’ve worked in school districts and I’ve worked in other places where there are strong unions and I know the difference. And it’s better with a strong union.”

Northcoast Children’s Services formed in the early 1970s as a small parent co-op, first getting state grants and later federal grants. Now it’s a private nonprofit corporation with a $9.8 million budget that funds educational and social services and resources for about 1,200 children, from birth to age 5, and their families in Del Norte and Humboldt counties. NCS runs the federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs, state preschool programs, state child development centers, a child care food service, Even Start, the Humboldt Recreation program and Reading is Fundamental. It also distributes car seats, food and books, and its employees hook up low-income families with dental, medical and other services. It employs about 250 people, from educators to housekeepers and cooks, at 33 sites. More than half the employees are part-time field staff who work at the various sites for up to 36 and a half hours a week with sick leave and vacation pay but no health benefits. The rest, full time staff who work 37 hours or more, can choose from three benefits, either health insurance, childcare or a tax-sheltered annuity.

Turley, who’s been with NCS for 18 years, said that workers have twice tried to organize a union, and twice they’ve failed. Turley spurred this latest attempt, after reading about unionizing efforts at Head Starts in other California counties. She sent out an e-mail to some fellow workers last February, and then held a first meeting in her home later that spring. More meetings followed.

By fall, the workers had obtained signatures from 120 workers saying they were interested in forming a union. The NCS Board of Directors rejected the cards, citing the same neutrality that NCS management has, by law, adopted because it receives government funds. The organizers turned to the feds to hold an election.

On Dec. 28, the National Labor Relations Board mailed secret ballots to the homes of the majority of NCS’s 250-strong workforce (some, including managers, are ineligible to be part of the bargaining unit), asking if they wish to be represented by the CFT. The ballots are due back to the NLRB by Jan. 18, and will be counted on Jan. 22.

Meanwhile, other workers are questioning the need for a union. In an online forum put together by NCS information systems specialist Camryn Indigo, some employees worry that they’ll have to pay union dues whether they want a union or not. They worry that jobs might be cut in order to meet new money demands, which in turn, they fear, might hurt the families they serve. One frequent commenter on the site, Amber Van Dunk, who works for Arcata Head Start as a home visitor and is against forming a union, says that during the drive to collect pro-union signatures, rumors were spread that she thinks unfairly prompted “yes” votes.

“There were lies going around, like that management makes six-figure salaries, which they don’t,” Van Dunk said in a phone interview. “Another rumor was that the board members make six-figure salaries, when they’re actually volunteers.”

Another employee says that an editorial that ran in the Dec. 29 Times-Standard incorrectly stated that after NCS gave out cost of living increases, it told employees it would have to reduce instructional supplies money to compensate. But the supplies budget had already been increased by nearly 50 percent, so the few-percent cut was but a reduction in the increase.

Van Dunk says she’s not against the union in theory, but she worries how a nonprofit such as NCS could afford some of the potential demands that might be made by the union for higher wages and benefits. NCS is funded by set state and federal grants. “Where’s the money going to come from?” she asked.

Some have accused the union organizers of being secretive. Indigo says that while the organizers talk about having met “for months and months” trying to organize, she and a number of other employees didn’t hear about the union effort until it hit the newspapers in November -- despite the fact that one of the organizers, Susan Hiler, works in the main office, too. “Maybe it was an oversight,” she said. “But when I found out, I was pretty surprised.” She and some others who’d just found out about it were invited to a meeting after that -- but they were asked to leave mid-meeting, she said.

Indigo says she wonders how, or who, the union would actually help. “I feel I have a voice already,” she said. “And I think these people could have explored some other options. One of the things they say is, if management says there’s no money for something, they can [as a collective bargaining unit] ask management to prove that. Well, I went to management and said, what can I see? I asked to see the budget and the audit, and I got to.”

If pressed for specifics on why they want a union, some pro-union workers will deliver: One wants to know why she was laid off temporarily for two weeks one year, and six weeks the next. Another wants to know why she’ll never get retirement benefits. An associate teacher wants to know why a housekeeper’s making more than she is. And so on. But then they tend to back off of the specifics to reiterate that it isn’t about money or other particulars so much as it is about voice.

“We understand there might not be money,” Hiler said. “But we want to know how it works. And we want to be part of the decisions. Now, we are just told decisions. The stereotype is that unions are moneygrubbers. But this is about solidarity.”

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About The Author

Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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