By MOLLY CHARBONEAU
Youth Care Workers at the Children’s Village on Staten Island voted overwhelmingly in May—despite management intimidation—to be represented by District Council 37. The resounding vote came after six months of workplace organizing.
“Management didn’t respect or support the workforce,” said Donald Holton, the worker who contacted DC 37 to inquire about joining the union.
“We wanted a fair shot with management and a a union to represent us,” Holton said. “So we let our fingers do the talking, and they got the point.”
“Everyone knew we needed a union,” said Kiena Hicklen, another worker organizer, “but we didn’t know if we would be retaliated against by management, so it took some time.”
The Children’s Village is a large nonprofit under contract with the Administration for Children’s Services and New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services. Its fiscal year 2015 annual report showed government grants and contracts accounted for more than $77 million of the nonprofit’s $78.29 million operating revenue.
Job security and respect
The Staten Island location is part of the city’s Close to Home Program, a reform initiative begun in 2012 so young offenders can stay in their communities, where school, family support, affordable housing and work can help them better than being at a distant detention center to overcome a troubled past and achieve stability.
The Youth Care Workers perform a vital social and community service in the program, and they value their role in assisting and guiding the young women who live in the Staten Island low-security residence.
“We are like mentors,” said Holton. “We try to show them another way to lead their lives.”
Holton and Hicklen described a management pattern of unfair firings that led the workers to band together for respect and job security—particularly after an ACS investigation exonerated two suspended workers and management refused to rehire them.
“I worked in nursing for about 12 years, and I was a delegate in 1199SEIU, so I knew we needed a union,” said Holton. “I looked online to see who might represent us, and I found DC 37.” Hicklen said a few other Youth Care Workers had also been union members at previous jobs.
In October 2015, Holton spoke with Julian DeJesus in DC 37’s Organizing Dept., and then the workers began meeting, talking and signing the cards that led to the successful National Labor Relations Board vote on May 26. “We also wore the green DC 37 wristbands a lot,” said Hicklen, which helped spread the “DC 37 Union Strong” message.
Sea of green for the vote
As the workers showed up wearing green for the vote, they had already come a long way together—and they were not stopped by a last-ditch management letter urging them to vote “no union.”
When the ballots were tallied, 100 percent of participating Youth Care Workers had voted for DC 37.
“Nonprofits like the Children’s Village are a type of privatization of public service work,” said DeJesus. “It’s the wave of the future for DC 37 to provide the union representation these workers want and need.”
The Youth Care Workers, who will become part of Social Service Employees Union Local 371, look forward to DC 37 having their back as they develop their demands around wages, benefits, job security and other workplace issues.
“Local 371 is truly excited about working with these Youth Care Workers,” said Local 371 Grievence Rep Alex Parker. “This is very familiar territory for our local.” And the new DC 37 members feel the same.
“Everyone is excited about having the union and getting a contract,” said Hicklen.