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'It's About Time': Workers at LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired to Vote on Unionizing

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A person holding a white can sits on a bench outdoors.
Sheri Albers, Community Outreach Specialist with LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, sits outside her home in Alameda on Sept. 18, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

This story contains a correction.

Workers at LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired are set to vote today, Oct. 25, on whether to form a union. If successful, organizers say the nonprofit would be the first organization serving people who are blind or visually impaired to unionize in the Bay Area.

LightHouse workers leading the union campaign hope joining the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 29 will improve pay equity and boost job security.

“It’s about time. The disability community has been squashed for so, so long,” said Sheri Albers, an outreach specialist at LightHouse. “It takes a lot of strength and courage to stand up and speak out so we can be heard. This here is the vehicle to the nth degree.”

A modern-looking building with the words "Lighthouse" written over the doorway.
People pass by LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco on Market Street on Sept. 14, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

LightHouse, which has a headquarters on Market Street in San Francisco, provides education, training, and other services for roughly 3,000 residents annually. Its roots can be traced to more than a century ago when a group of women established the Reading Room for the Blind in the basement of the San Francisco Public Library. LightHouse now has five locations across Northern California, and in 2015 it received a $125 million donation, one of the largest single gifts ever given to a blindness organization.

Many of the nonprofit’s staff are drawn in by the organization’s mission to promote independence, equality and self-reliance for people who are blind or have low vision.

Albers, who has retinitis pigmentosa and did not receive training around blindness until age 40, said she has invested “her entire being” into the agency she joined a few years back. She had been living in Ohio in 2019 when she heard the then-CEO of LightHouse speak at a national conference and was so enamored by “the positive blind philosophy” that she quit her job. She left her home, family, and friends, determined to work at LightHouse. Six months later, she was working at LightHouse. 

But Albers said the organization has changed dramatically since then, and she’s seen too many talented staff let go or leave for better positions elsewhere.

“If I were let go today, I don’t know when and where and how easy it would be for me to get another job,” Albers said. “And I’ve worked hard to get where I am. To know that just at will, I could be let go? That scares me a lot because I’ve seen it happen.”

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Layoffs can hit people with disabilities particularly hard. During the mass layoffs felt during the start of the pandemic, people with disabilities represented a disproportionate share of people who lost their jobs.

Those concerns about job stability and the organization’s future led LightHouse staff to seek voluntary recognition from management in September, writing in a letter to Chief Executive Director Sharon Giovinazzo that unionizing would allow staff a voice in shaping the organization’s policies.

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“We believe that all LightHouse employees — from factory workers to executive leadership — should receive equal treatment,” the letter reads. “Today, we reflect upon the words of Helen Keller, who wrote, ‘Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.’ Together, we are claiming our collective voice and exercising our legal right to unionize and create a LightHouse, United.”

In a written statement, Giovinazzo, who became CEO of LightHouse last October, said she is committed to honoring the results of the union election.

“I have been actively engaged in measures to reinvigorate our workforce and chart a new trajectory that will secure a robust and sustainable future for LightHouse,” Giovinazzo said. “I can assure you that these measures have and will continue to reflect my commitment to social justice and workers’ rights.”

In addition to job security, workers also want to see more pay equity and compensation that rewards longevity within the organization.

Divina Carlson, a braille teacher, has worked at LightHouse for the last three decades.

“Just value the experience that we bring to the agency and the loyalty and dedication,” Carlson said. “We want equity for our workers in terms of salary, benefits, and all the good things that unions provide.”

An Asian woman with short hair stands in front of a building wearing a LIGHTHOUSE shirt, looking to the side away from the camera.
Divina Carlson, a braille instructor, stands outside LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired on Market Street in San Francisco on Sept. 14, 2023. Carlson and fellow employees are working to form a union at the organization. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Several other mission-driven nonprofits in the Bay Area have unionized over the last two years, including Compass Family Services and the Glide Foundation in San Francisco. Workers at the Alameda County Community Food Bank also announced their move to unionize earlier this month.

Frank Welte, a senior Accessible Media and Braille Specialist at LightHouse, said unionizing at an agency with so many blind employees and blind people in leadership positions sends a powerful message to other workplaces.

“It emphasizes and affirms the fundamental equality of people who are blind with people who are sighted in whatever level we are in,” Welte said. “I think that sets a wonderful example throughout the country that this is how things can be.”

October 25: An earlier version of this story included the incorrect date for the vote on unionizing. This story has been edited to correct the inaccuracy.

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