BURLINGTON - Employees of Burlington's largest nonprofit agency that provides food, clothing and shelter to the city's homeless population marched in Burlington last week to drum up support for their right to organize. A new union, formed under the rubric of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, represents about 46 full- and part-time workers at COTS - the Committee on Temporary Shelter - and already claims the support of 80 percent of the staff. Workers say they're asking management and the COTS board of directors to voluntarily recognize the union and negotiate their first contract, rather than challenging its legitimacy and precipitating a potentially costly and contentious public fight.
On November 2, some 70 people, including about a dozen rank-and-file members of other Burlington-area unions, gathered outside the COTS Waystation at Church and King streets for a candlelight vigil and march. Accompanied by local banjo player Rik Palieri, the marchers followed a route similar to the annual "COTS Walk," a fundraiser that supports the organization's four daytime and overnight shelters.
Though the workers and organizers were reluctant to discuss their specific grievances, several expressed general concerns about job security, adequate staffing, overall workplace conditions and the level of communication between them and the organization's leadership.
According to Harold Kaplan, who's worked at COTS since 1991, the idea of forming a union has been kicking around for the last four years. He says it only came to fruition recently after one of his co-workers, who reportedly was in good standing, was let go after voicing concerns to her superiors about job security.
"She specifically said, 'I'm concerned about retribution,'" says Kaplan, who didn't identify the dismissed worker. "She was fired within three weeks of that statement.
"We're not trying to air all of our dirty laundry in the press," he adds, "but we need to get information out to the community that all is not well in the land of Oz."
Emily Casey, who's been a case manager at COTS for about a year, says the union drive isn't about seeking higher wages and benefits, especially since the entire COTS staff recently got a raise.
"We're not asking for outrageous things. We're just asking for a voice," Casey says. "A bunch of other nonprofit organizations in town have organized and made it through it. It's scary at first, but it's a good thing."
COTS board member David Conard says he only learned about the union drive two weeks ago. The news came as "a complete and total surprise" to him and other board members, he says, especially since COTS already pays its full-time employees a livable wage and provides them with full medical and dental benefits.
"Right now, we're in an information-gathering phase," Conard adds, "trying to learn as much as we can about how [the union] would affect our ability to fulfill our mission." The board won't make a decision about recognizing the union before its next regularly scheduled meeting on November 16, where the union will be "a primary agenda item," he says.
As of press time, COTS Executive Director Rita Markley was out of town due to a death in her family and was unavailable to comment for this story.
Rabbi Joshua Chasan of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington is one of several community leaders who have been involved in the unionizing effort. Chasan, along with state Rep. Mark Larson (D-Burlington) and City Councilor Tim Ashe (P-Ward 3) have been urging the board to voluntarily recognize the union, while also asking workers to refrain from holding a workplace action, such as a strike or walkout, before the board can meet next week.
Chasan, who's spoken with Markley and the board on several occasions in recent weeks, says the board "has not sent any encouraging messages" to the workers about their effort to unionize, though several members have signaled that recognition will be "seriously considered."
If the board doesn't accept the union and decides instead to push the decision to the National Labor Relations Board - which has turned decidedly anti-union in recent years - "We will have a train wreck on our hands," Chasan remarks.
The union drive comes at a somewhat delicate time of year for the nonprofit, which may be reluctant to generate bad publicity during the holiday season, when many of its supporters are making decisions about end-of-the-year charitable donations. Generally speaking, COTS has a stellar reputation among Burlington-area nonprofits, as does its executive director. As one worker remarked about Markley, "She walks on water in this town."
Workers also express reluctance to cause undue harm to their organization or to put added stress on their clients, who already have difficult lives. In 2005, COTS' two family shelters provided housing to 575 people - including 311 children - a 30-percent increase from the previous year. Likewise, the COTS Waystation served 482 people in 2005, an average of 29 people per night, according to COTS' data.
But employees say it's only fair for an organization that professes social justice to recognize their rights as workers. As Lucia Volino, a 17-year COTS veteran who works at the Daystation puts it, "The board's been kind of quiet about it at this point . . . It's interesting how they're threatened by the workers' voice. It's like 'union' is a dirty word."