Housing Works Is Cast in Unusual Role: Corporate Overlord

For more than three decades, Charles King has made it his business to fight for vulnerable New Yorkers, much of that time leading Housing Works, a nonprofit organization created in 1990 to find housing for homeless people who had H.I.V.

As Housing Works grew, so did its ambition. It began to provide various social services to homeless and low-income people affected by AIDS, while maintaining its activist roots in its fights with New York City for proper funding, or in its protests of Republican members of Congress who supported rolling back the Affordable Care Act.

But now Mr. King and Housing Works find themselves in an unusual position: Employees are planning a walkout on Tuesday to protest the organization’s resistance to their bid to form a union.

The workers say that Housing Works’s stance demonstrates the organization’s embrace of corporate values, and is a betrayal of its core identity.

“Any organization that calls itself a social justice organization that champions itself as a vanguard of progressive ideals, they should be supporting and allowing workers to assert their rights through a union,” said Elena Rodriguez, a lawyer at Housing Works who has aided the unionization efforts. “I don’t think the two are at odds.”

The walkout comes nearly a year after workers began organizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in an effort to get Housing Works to address a number of grievances — such as heavy caseloads, high insurance premiums and restrictions on paid time off — that they say have eroded the workplace culture and made it difficult to serve their clients.

Workers said they had hoped that Housing Works, which has hosted public events featuring labor leaders and demonstrated alongside unions, would be more supportive of their efforts.

Instead, they say Housing Works has employed hardball tactics that corporations often use in resisting unionization. For instance, it has hired a lawyer who specializes in union avoidance and has refused to hand over a list of employee contact information.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said a major sticking point in the talks with Housing Works was the nonprofit’s refusal to sign an agreement that would bar it from interfering in union organizing.

“Even large, for-profit entities that do not consider themselves progressive in any way agree to neutrality,” he said.

Mr. Appelbaum said that his union had repeatedly tried to negotiate the terms of the agreement, but that Mr. King had not been receptive. The union also plans to file unfair labor practice charges against Housing Works, claiming it has intimidated workers before the walkout.

Mr. King says the agency has an open-door policy that gives workers access to management and encourages lower-level workers to share ideas and grievances. He said that Housing Works was not opposed in principle to signing a neutrality agreement, but that he believed that certain provisions in the agreement were biased in favor of the union.

“It’s not for me to say that these employees should recognize this union as their bargaining entity,” he said. “The union needs to do its job and sell itself to our employees.”

Founded in 1990 at the height of the AIDS pandemic by Mr. King and other leaders from the AIDS activist group Act Up, Housing Works set out to combat the virus by providing housing to homeless and low-income New Yorkers living with H.I.V.

Although it started as a small charity with only six employees, Housing Works has morphed into one of the largest comprehensive service providers in the nation for people with H.I.V., employing nearly 800 workers. This year, it merged with Bailey House, another service provider in New York. The organization funds its programs and advocacy work through grants and donations, as well as a sprawling retail operation that includes 13 thrift stores and one bookstore.

Mr. King acknowledges that the organization is changing, but denies that its leadership is anti-union. He says Housing Works has maintained the spirit of community through policies that encourage workers to share their ideas and concerns.

Not all of his employees agree. Ms. Rodriguez, the staff lawyer, said that landing a job there was a dream come true. But soon after she started, Ms. Rodriguez said, she noticed things that she believed contradicted the organization’s progressive values. The tipping point for Ms. Rodriguez came about a year ago, after a colleague who was fired had to pack up her things in front of everyone in the office before being escorted from the building.

“It was really, really hard for us to believe that Housing Works would treat someone who was part of our staff and part of our family in such a heartless and sort of corporate way,” she said.

Brian Grady, a housing coordinator, said that as a gay man, he was first attracted to Housing Works because of the legacy it earned during the AIDS pandemic. Although he enjoyed his work, Mr. Grady said the workload had begun to wear him down. For months, he was the only housing coordinator for a program with nearly 3,000 clients.

“It’s difficult work,” he said. “We work with people who are going through some of the worst times in their lives and are going through a lot of really unstable situations. As workers we take a lot of that home, especially when we’re hearing these stories day after day with limited resources to help.”

Part of the problem is high turnover. Workers said that the demanding nature of their jobs meant that people were frequently coming and going. According to Housing Works’s 2019-20 strategic objective plan, its annual turnover rate is about 30 percent.

Ms. Rodriguez said the organization’s high turnover rate hurt Housing Works’s clients. She spoke about one client who was evicted and had to enter the shelter system because Housing Works could not find her a new home in time.

“Over the course of more than a year, I saw her shuffled to three new case managers,” Ms. Rodriguez said, adding, “I can’t help but think back to that client and wonder what we could have done better to assist her.”

Mr. King said that he sympathized with workers’ concerns, but that he doubted a union would be able to solve all of their issues.

“Housing Works already pays much higher than the average salary for community-based organizations in New York City and we already have much lower caseloads,” he said. “So the likelihood that it’s going to dramatically change, that is just not real in a Medicaid-funded program.”

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