LIFESPIRE UNDER FIRE: STAFFERS CONSIDER UNION

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Workers at Lifespire, a large citywide nonprofit agency, whose mission is to help people with developmental disabilities “reach life’s aspirations,” have an aspiration of their own: to form a union.

After years of high staff turnover, no job security, low wages and income stagnation, many Lifespire workers want to join Civil Services Employees Association Local 1000 but say management is trying to keep that from happening.

Lifespire staff and union organizers say the agency has held mandatory meetings where managers try to sway workers from joining Local 1000. Though Lifespire has drafted an agreement promising to remain neutral, union officials say management is not operating in good faith.

“Their union busting with a smile is still union busting,” said Paul Frank, Local 1000 organizing supervisor. He added the union wants to see good faith from management and needs the list of workers and addresses to verify that the employees work at the agency.

Developmental aide Helen Hané said the crackdown started soon after the union began its work this past spring. “[Managers] have had captive audience meetings many times since the union started,” she said. “They sit us down and tell us we have a choice to make.”

Lifespire disputes these accusations. “We believe in the right of workers to choose or not to choose a union,” said Executive Vice President Tom McAlvanah. “We don’t believe in coercion or intimidation of any kind.”

Lifespire employs over 1,400 staff that provide services and activities, such as job training and communication skills at 59 sites, including day centers and supervised homes. Most of the employees work as aides teaching vocational and other independent living skills.

Hané, who works in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, started working at Lifespire two and half years ago for just over $8 per hour. The developmental aide assists clients in classroom settings and helps them “do their normal toileting,” she says. Today she earns only a dollar more. “Every time we get raises it gets sucked up by health insurance,” she said.

Her colleague, senior developmental aide Natasha James, has other concerns. “I want a contract that protects us from favoritism and illegal firings,” said James.

Local 1000 already represents over 20,000 workers in statewide agencies providing developmental disability assistance and wants to use its political clout to compel Lifespire to sign a more binding neutrality agreement, promising not to dissuade workers from organizing. Once the agreement is finalized, workers may sign union cards. Then, in a process known as a “card check,” the affiliation cards are counted by a third party to see if a majority of workers have signed-up. If so, the employer begins collective bargaining. Many unions prefer card checks by a third party mediator to ensure accurate results.

Lifespire management agreed to a third party mediator in principle, and recently sent a draft “Recognition Procedure and Employee Free Choice Agreement” to Local 1000 detailing a card check and neutrality agreement. “We are willing to accept a card check,” said McAlvanah, who insists it’s the union that isn’t playing fair. “They [Local 1000] want to put a gag order on Lifespire.”

Recently, union supporters held a protest outside a country club in Haworth, New Jersey where Lifespire was holding a golf outing to raise funds. State Senators Velmanette Montgomery and Diane Savino joined workers in Sunset Park for a press conference two days later.

“We want management to remain neutral,” said James. “Everybody knows we aren’t going to be rich, but we want a fair contract.”

Bennett Baumer