Inside the Long, Uphill Battle to Unionize Workers at One Large Bay Area Nonprofit

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The front of a building with a large green sign that says 'The Felton Institute.'
The Felton Institute in Alameda on Jan. 25, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Eva Cisneros loves her job at the Felton Institute, a nonprofit that has provided a range of mental health and social services across the Bay Area for more than 130 years.

"It gives me a lot of joy when [my clients] reach a milestone. Even when we finish a Social Security application, that's a huge accomplishment,” said Cisneros, an employment and education specialist at the organization's early psychosis program. “I always call it 'the little wins.' You have to get those little wins.”

But high turnover, staffing shortages, unsustainable caseloads and low pay are undermining crucial services and relationships with clients, she said.

Cisneros notes that she’s been at Felton for less than three years, and is already one of the longest-serving members of her team.

"We, as the frontline workers, need more of a voice,” she said. "Every month I just hope I can pay the rent, pay the bills, feed the cats and keep my car running so I can get to work, go to the field and meet my clients.”

A woman with glasses and a SF Giants jacket stands in front of stone building.
Eva Cisneros, an employment and education specialist at the Felton Institute, who has helped organize the union campaign, near the organization's Geary Blvd. location in San Francisco on Jan. 31, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In a push to boost workers’ wages and bargaining power, Cisneros and a contingent of her colleagues have been waging a prolonged campaign to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, which currently represents only about 50 of the organization's roughly 500 workers.

Felton workers watched over the last year as their counterparts at several Bay Area social services nonprofits — including the Glide Foundation and Compass Family Services — voted to unionize because of similar workplace concerns. Workers in those agencies are now, for the first time, preparing to bargain for their new contracts.

That comes as more than 70% of Americans say they approve of labor unions, the highest rate since 1965, according to a 2022 Gallup poll. But even so, only about 10% of U.S. workers currently belong to labor unions, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

More than three years into their unionization bid, organizers at Felton are still trying to secure support from a majority of workers.

The protracted effort at Felton highlights just how challenging labor organizing can be at a sprawling, mission-driven nonprofit.

Some Felton workers say they’ve been threatened and retaliated against for their union activity.

"I knew that a boss never likes the idea of a union, but the extent that upper management has gone to suppress the union campaign has really shocked me,” said Ayla Lorraine, a clinical case manager at Felton who works with older adults. “I’ve talked to so, so many different colleagues. Easily a broad majority of people I’ve talked to are in support of a union, and also terrified to be public about it.”

SEIU Local 1021 has filed 10 unfair labor practice charges against Felton with the National Labor Relations Board, including claims that its management surveilled staff by taking their pictures or recording videos of them, and fired an employee for supporting the union. (The union has since dropped one of the 10 charges.)

In a neutrality agreement with Felton that went into effect in 2019, the nonprofit agreed to remain neutral on the organizing campaign and not to retaliate against workers involved in union activity.

Felton also pledged to provide contact information to allow the union to speak to workers about joining, an agreement the SEIU said Felton has violated.

“Felton has also been waging one of the most intense and comprehensive anti-worker campaign we’ve seen from an employer in San Francisco in decades,” Mariya Semeit, a Felton head teacher and member of the SEIU 1021 bargaining team, said in an email statement. “Their goal is to intimidate workers who are not yet members of the union and to distract and delay efforts by SEIU 1021 to provide representation and assistance to current members who are seeking to improve their workplace.”

Felton flatly denies those claims.

When asked during a San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee hearing last October to respond to the charges, Sarah Richardson Baker, Felton’s director of communications, refuted the allegations and said that Felton has followed all “contractual obligations.” She noted that over the last five years, Felton increased the wages of all of its employees by over 25%. She declined, however, to answer questions from supervisors.

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"I just find that totally unacceptable,” Supervisor Myrna Melgar responded. "The goal, as I told you when I met with you, was to get to a place where we can have labor peace. And it doesn't seem to me that by not engaging, we can get to a place of understanding."

In an interview with KQED, Felton CEO and President Al Gilbert said he had been advised that saying anything during the hearing could be perceived as anti-union.

Gilbert also said that some Felton employees have raised concerns with management about those campaigning for the union visiting employees’ homes after hours.

"It can feel frightening if someone comes to your house and says your name and knocks on your door and it's nighttime," he said. "You don’t feel safe. You don’t know why they’re there, you don't know if you're in trouble with the law. Many staff have said they're concerned about that, and they actually asked for our support."

Gilbert acknowledged that Felton, like many other nonprofits dependent on public funding, has faced challenges paying employees enough to afford to live in the Bay Area.

That claim is backed by a report last year from the San Francisco City Controller's Office, which found that nonprofits face “extreme inflationary and market pressures, which often exceed contract budget increases” and that “low wage levels led to difficulty hiring and high turnover, impacting client services and service provider stability.”

Nonetheless, Gilbert contended that Felton’s workforce has remained “relatively stable” considering the many pandemic-related disruptions it’s faced in recent years.

The union’s complaints against Felton have been a distraction from the necessary and difficult work the nonprofit should be focusing on, Gilbert added, noting that he worries the recent strife is also undermining worker camaraderie and morale.

“The work is really complicated and we know we're all in it for the right reasons. And now we're spending time talking about something that, to us, should be a nonissue,” Gilbert said. “If the employees want to join the union, please do. Call a vote, do something.”

A middle-age woman stands in front of a house.
Ahide Palomera, administrative manager at Felton who opposes the union drive, near her Oakland home on Jan. 25, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Ahide Palomera, administrative manager in Felton's early psychosis program, pointed to the rift that the union organizing campaign has fomented among workers.

"It's upsetting because it's now snowballed into something it shouldn't have been,” Palomera said. “I feel like it's a lot of bullying and a lot of pressuring folks.”

Palomera is not new to union involvement at Felton: She joined SEIU Local 1021 in 2011. During that time, Palomera said, she generally felt misled and unsupported, and remembers finding the union hard to get ahold of when she or her co-workers sought help.

"I got really upset. I was like, 'Why are you guys not helping these employees?'" Palomera said. "I was like, 'I can't do this anymore.' I'm paying [dues for] something that is not benefiting me. No one was hearing me.”

Palomera now works at a different Felton location in Alameda, where employees are not unionized.

“We pride ourselves on being a member-led union, but people come up short sometimes,” Semeit, the bargaining team member, said in her email. “We have worked hard in the decade since the issues raised by that member to be better, and we continue to do the difficult but necessary work of building a strong, member-led organization.”

Another employee, Milagro Castro, said she was so frustrated by pressure to support the union at the Bryant location that she transferred to another site.

"The environment is too toxic,” said Castro, a teaching assistant who works with young children. "Too much pressure. I said, 'No, no, no. I need to move.'"

But Cisneros, the union proponent, said workers involved in the campaign need to be able to hear from their colleagues directly. She noted door-to-door campaigning is a normal part of democracy.

"It's not necessarily that [workers] have to support a union, but we want [their] input,” Cisneros said. “If we're going to form a union — if we're going to try to form a union — we need people’s thoughts who work there.”