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Berkeley-Albany YMCA Workers Win Union Vote

Friday July 23, 2004

After a 46-12 vote early Thursday evening, Berkeley-Albany YMCA Head Start teachers officially have their first union. 

Shouts of joy went up afterwards as those who will be in the bargaining unit—including teachers, teacher assistants, family providers, administrative workers and maintenance workers—celebrated the victory outside the YMCA on Tenth Street in West Berkeley. 

“We won!” shouted Clara Vann into her cell phone while she hugged other workers.  

The workers’ organizing drive, which started six weeks ago, was one of the quickest they’ve seen, according to representatives from the Oakland-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 616. The speed, they said, is due to the strong commitment from several workers but also reflects the general consensus that a union was long overdo for Head Start workers at the Berkeley-Albany YMCA. 

According to the union, workers initiated a union drive several years ago that was soundly defeated after the Y hired an anti-union consulting firm. The only employees that currently have a union are the custodial workers who work for a company that has a contract with the Y. 

According to some of nearly 80 workers in the new bargaining unit, their main concerns included rampant favoritism, lack of job security, and low wages. Andrea Morabido, a teacher with five years experience, an associate degree, and 70-plus units of early childhood development credits said she’s constantly been overlooked for higher positions because management refuses to follow any sort of promotions rules. Recently, Morabido said she was forced to work under the supervision of another teacher who was not as qualified. And while not opposed to letting a skilled teacher do her job, she said she was upset because she felt like there was no structure. 

“I’m not saying she didn’t know her stuff, but rules are rules,” said Morabido. “I’ve seen how they’ve treated two people basically at the same level, two different ways.” 

Larry Bush, the president and CEO of the Berkeley-Albany YMCA, denies the alleged lack of rules concerning staff and says a clear structure set forth by the federal government is in place and used to govern the Y. Without strict rules, reviewed once every three years, the Y would not receive funding he said.   

“As in any organization there is a structure,” he said. “I’m sure [favoritism] happens around the world. Is [the employee’s claim] real? I’m not aware of it.” 

“Of course there is a pay structure, it’s open, it’s transparent,” he said. 

When asked if they understood the pay structure however, several other employees supported Morabido’s claim.  

“It just goes to show you what happens when people are extremely discontent,” said Morabido. 

The vote, while quick, was not without incident according to union organizers. In particular, workers and community members, including Berkeley city councilmember Kriss Worthington, were upset when they received two letters released by the YMCA during the drive that they characterized as anti-union.  

On the first, Bush included details such as time and place of the vote but also placed three bullet points about the income generated by Local 616 and where they allocate the money. Defended by Bush as “information to help the workers make an informed decision,” others saw the letters as the YMCA trying to sway the vote, which is illegal. 

In a letter sent to Bush, Worthington called the summary of the union fiscal report “distorted and inaccurate.” 

“For employees to receive false information days before a scheduled election could be perceived by many people as an attempt to unfairly influence the vote,” Worthingon wrote. 

In a second letter, the YMCA listed a number of employees as union supporters and then drew up a comparison between the union and the YMCA. Being listed, said workers, was intimidating and Worthington sent out another letter to employees telling them the letter contained more “inaccurate and/or extremely distorted information.” 

“I apologize that you are again being subjected to this barrage of inaccuracies, and in one page, misrepresentation about 20 employees. Sometimes management uses intimidation, or temporary improvements, or promises of improvements to scare folks into voting against a union,” Worthington wrote. 

Both management and workers said beyond the union, their primary commitment is to the children and families served by Head Start. Better working conditions and more job security means better teachers according to the workers.  

The drive is also part of a larger campaign that SEIU is running across the country to organize Head Start workers.  

According to a report released by the National Head Start Association (NHSA), the Bush administration’s Fiscal year 2004 budget proposes a system where money from the Federal Head Start budget would be transferred into new or existing early childhood programs run by the state. 

According to the report, the proposal would effectively destroy the Head Start program in five years by placing its money in a “hodgepodge of inconsistent and untested state government programs.”  

Union officials agree and say they are building their numbers to increase their lobbying power. They want the money to stay with the federal government because with current budget crisis, especially here in California, schools are one of the programs hardest hit.