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'They Can't Live on Their Desire to Serve Others': More Bay Area Nonprofit Workers Are Joining the Labor Movement

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three people at a rally, with one holding a sign that reads 'living wage now!' and one speaking into a microphone
Tenderloin Housing Clinic workers rally for a new contract and higher wages in San Francisco on July 27, 2022. The workers support SRO hotels and include caseworkers, janitors, maintenance staff and desk workers. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A growing number of Bay Area nonprofit workers have gone on strike or joined unions in recent months — a surge of labor organizing by the people who serve some of the region's most marginalized residents.

Staff at Glide Foundation last week submitted a letter of intent to management stating that they planned to form a union, becoming the latest in a string of nonprofit employee groups to organize to ensure worker protections and a living wage. In doing so, workers at the nonprofit, which serves San Francisco's unhoused community, joined their counterparts at Hamilton Families, Impact Justice and Episcopal Community Services, all Bay Area nonprofits that unionized with the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 29.

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Last month, employees of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic — already members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 — ratified a new contract that included an average 22% pay raise following nine months of bargaining and a first-of-its-kind, 24-hour strike.

Jane Bosio, union representative with OPEIU Local 29, said nonprofit workers have long been underpaid. That's not only compared with employees in the private sector, she said, but also with city employees with whom these workers often collaborate to serve unhoused and otherwise marginalized populations.

The current movement, Bosio said, is a result of nonprofit staff taking a stand against being treated like "second-class employees," and demanding their employers — and the cities they contract with — pay more attention to the welfare of workers who are providing vital services.

"Workers are coming to realize that they're in this work because they care about it, they care about the community ... but they can't live just on their desire to serve others," she said. "They have to pay rent. They have to feed their kids. They have to be able to pay for gas and transit to get to work. And so they understand that they need a living wage."

Staff at Glide and other nonprofits have reached out to workers at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank — who joined OPEIU Local 29 in 2019 — for guidance as they jump-start their own organizing efforts.

Emily Citraro, a veteran employee of the food bank who now serves as a union steward, said staff there began to organize following a growing consensus that the organization's institutional problems were being ignored by management.

"People were just burnt out. There was tremendous turnover. It's one thing when people leave, and it's another thing when people just sit there and cry," she said. "It was just such an unstable, unsustainable situation."

a volunteer sorts donated food for the SF Marin food bank
Volunteers sort donated apples at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. The organization's workers voted to unionize in 2020, winning raises and worker protections, following a growing sense among employees that management was ignoring institutional problems. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Since workers at the food bank ratified their contract, "people are really seeing that they have the ability to bring [an issue] to one of the stewards, and the stewards will escalate it and then they have the full force of the union behind them," Citraro said. "And you just didn't have any protection if you tried to do that before. There was always the chance that you would just be retaliated against."

In July, San Francisco approved a budget that includes $27 million in discretionary general fund money to be used for a cost-of-living adjustment for nonprofit workers — including caseworkers, property managers and maintenance workers — and to lower case manager-to-client ratios.

But some nonprofit workers said the city's efforts barely scratch the surface of their needs. Sam Meredith, a social worker with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said in July that the raise ranges presented by the city "still don't really address what we're fighting for."

He said it took the strike to get the city's attention and their demands met. The contract that THC workers ratified in September included an average raise of 22%.

Employees at Compass Family Services, another nonprofit that helps San Francisco residents find stable housing and economic stability, will vote in November on whether to form a union.

"Our workers aren't getting paid enough [and don't have] good enough health benefits, child care and all that kind of stuff," said Amy Huntley, a case manager at the organization. "Basically anybody that works [at] this organization could end up in the situation that our clients end up in." She added that management has been discouraging workers from voting to unionize, arguing that a union would add an extra layer to the organization and drastically change how the organization works.

Saba Mwine, managing director at USC's Homelessness Policy Research Institute, said many of the people who work in social service nonprofits also have experienced homelessness themselves.

"Folks working in this field are already going above and beyond. Just the fact that conditions are such that folks are needing to also organize on top of the work they're doing is unfortunate for us as a society," said Mwine. "We ideally would really support their work robustly, because without that community of workers, there's no way that we're going to be able to end or even meaningfully address our homelessness crisis."

A worker in a yellow jacket looks on at an unhoused person sleeping in a cardboard box on the street
A Glide employee tries to speak with a man who fell asleep on the street while waiting in line for a bed at the organization's shelter in San Francisco. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

People working on the front lines of the homelessness crisis can experience "secondary trauma" from the stories they hear and situations they witness, she added. Many workers also have valid concerns about their own physical safety and "a lack of training, professional development and advancement," said Mwine, pointing to a recent report about conditions and retention issues at organizations that serve the unhoused population in Los Angeles. "I think there's a sort of psychic weight, because you feel the weight of the fact that homelessness is increasing despite your everyday efforts."

Locally, nonprofit workers' efforts align with several recent organized labor actions in the private sector. Janitors at Meta went on strike last week in response to mass layoffs, while restaurant employees at San Francisco International Airport successfully won a $5 raise and family health care following their three-day strike in September. At Kaiser Permanente, some mental health care workers are entering Week 9 of an open-ended strike over what union representatives call an unsustainable workload and unsafe therapist-to-client ratios.

Those actions are in line with a resurgence of labor organizing nationwide, including high-profile efforts at major corporations like Amazon and Starbucks. The National Labor Relations Board reported that workers filed more than 2,500 new union representation petitions in 2022 — a 53% spike from the 1,638 petitions filed by workers in 2021 and the highest number since 2016. And a recent Gallup poll found that support for unions in the U.S. is at a 57-year high, with 71% of Americans stating they support labor unions, up from 64% in 2019.

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