Is Larkin Street Youth Services using public funds to fight a union organizing drive?

Larkin Street Youth Services does great and important social work with homeless youth in San Francisco, for which it receives generous support from city taxpayers, as well as federal grants. That’s why its employees and some prominent local officials are questioning the organization’s aggressive, deceptive, and anti-union resistance to the request by a majority of its 88 employees to be represented by Service Employees International Union Local 1021.

A majority of employees submitted an organizing petition on April 8, asking LSYS Executive Director Sherilyn Adams to honor the request and recognize card check neutrality, as other local city-supported nonprofits have done, such as Tenderloin Housing Clinic. But SEIU organizer Peter Masiak said Adams refused to even discuss it, leading the National Labor Relations Board to set a mail-in ballot election that begins May 21.

“That was two months she was able to buy by forcing this election,” he told us.

Adams and LSYS management have used that time to try to undermine the organizing effort with staff meetings and mailers that criticize SEIU in particular and the labor movement in general, using misleading scare tactics about the costs of organizing.  

“In my view, if employees become represented by a union, our organization will be significantly impacted, and not for the better,” Adams wrote in an April 23 email to staff announcing the NLRB election. LSYS management has also posted flyers with inaccurate information on the costs of joining the union and dated information about a contentious contract impasse between Local 1021 and its workers that has [since been settled. CORRECTION: Local 1021 workers rejected that settlement, with negotiations scheduled to restart May 21].

“They have been engaged in an anti-union campaign and hired outside counsel to fight this,” Masiak told us, noting how inappropriate such actions are for an organization that gets the vast majority of its funding from government grants. “I think it’s a misuse of these funds.”

Some public officials agree, including Assembly member Tom Ammiano and Sup. John Avalos, who have written letters to LSYS criticizing the tactics and urging Adams to recognize the union.

“Their desire to have a voice on the job and develop professionally in a supportive environment should be celebrated by LSYS management,” Ammiano wrote to Adams on April 30, noting his long history of advocating for increased city funding of the organization. “Unions are an important voice for employees regarding salary, benefits, working conditions, and many other issues. I strongly encourage you to accept card check recognition, to remain neautral during your employees’ organizing efforts, and not to use public funds on anti-union attorneys or consultants, so that your employees may make their own decision on whether or not to form a union.”

Eva Kersey, who works in LSYS HIV-prevention programs and helped organize the union drive, said it was driven by concerns about low wages, poor benefits, and the belief that “we don’t have a meaningful voice in how our programs are run,” she told us.

Kersey said she was disappointed at how management has reacted to the organizing drive. “What was most surprising is the general lack of respect we’ve gotten as workers and an organizing committee,” Kersey said, citing belittling management statements about how employees were being manipulated by the desperate union. “We’ve put a lot of work into this and put ourselves out there in a lot of ways.”

But Kersey believes support for the union has only grown and that LSYS employees — who are used to cutting through the bullshit they hear from troubled teens — haven’t been swayed by the speeches, flyers, and emails from management.

“I don’t think they’re very effective. They’re pretty one-sided,” Kersey said.  

Adams did not return our calls for comment, but had LSYS spokesperson Nicole Garroutte respond by asking for questions in writing, and we provided a list raising the issues and concerns expressed in this article. She didn’t answer the questions directly but offered this prepared statement: “Thank you for your interest in Larkin Street and, in particular, the election process that is currently underway. Out of respect for all of our employees and to help ensure a fair and independent process, we will confine our response to reaffirming the high degree to which we value our staff and the faith that we have in their ability to make informed individual decisions regarding the election. We recognize that there are expected differences of opinions regarding the preferred labor-management model, but we are confident that we all share a mutual passion for our mission and, most importantly, for assisting to our fullest potential the vulnerable clients we serve. We would be happy to talk further after the election process is concluded.” 

Masiak said the ballots will be mailed out May 21, they must be returned by June 5, and they will counted June 6.