By MIKE LEE
DC 37 scored a significant win earlier this year in successfully organizing more than 100 workers at Fountain House in New York City and negotiating their first-ever collective bargaining agreement.
This marks another victory for the union’s Organizing Department’s efforts to expand membership and opportunities for private-sector workers in health care and social services with the city’s private, non-profit contractors.
It was a team effort, with help from DC 37’s Organizing, Research and Negotiations, and Legal departments stepping up to get Fountain House legal recognition and a fair contract, which was ratified by members on March 21.
Operating in nearly 40 states with more than 60,000 clients, Fountain House is a national, mental health non-profit providing community-based rehabilitative programs to help people impacted by mental illness. Those who take services at Fountain House are known as member clients.
Fountain House Social Practitioner Jesse Newberg began the organizing effort. “I was working in our residences when I started organizing. I noticed a lack of pay and raises, high turnover, difficulty attracting new staff, lack of supervision and support, and a cultural rift between those who worked in the clubhouse and those who worked in the residences,” Newberg said.
“Both positions were underpaid, but the residences much more so. The residences mainly employed people of color, while the clubhouse was mostly white workers. I wanted to encourage more solidarity among the two camps, secure explicit advancement mechanisms from housing workers to clubhouse workers, and improve communication to better serve the members,” he said.
Chloe Murtagh, also a Social Practitioner, joined the effort. “Many of us started talking about organizing initially because essentially people had not gotten significant or consistent raises in many years. Talking to some of the most senior workers, they told us about when people got guaranteed raises every year.
“Slowly, over time, that changed. Many who had been here for years had not gotten a significant raise in 10 years,” Murtagh said. “We were feeling people were getting a sense that Fountain House was no longer a place to have a career.”
Another factor was the pandemic’s impact. “Many of our housing workers were working almost every day in person at the residences, and many of us were going house to house, visiting our clients in person since they couldn’t come in. We felt like we were taking a tremendous risk, and if we were being under-compensated before then, we’re definitely under-compensated now,” Murtagh said.
In mid-2019, workers began to discuss unionizing. “We initially focused on collecting stories from long-time staff about prior unsuccessful organizing attempts,” Newberg said. “We also discussed which unions we should reach out to; then DC 37 offered to send professional organizers right away.”
Also key was the role of Jacques Momplaisir, a long-time Fountain House worker who was central in the leadership of the group and helped focus on addressing the racial segregation of members in the residences and at the clubhouse.
Mark Heron, Assistant Director in the Research and Negotiations Department, said, “Fountain House workers are pretty strong. These workers are well-organized, and this was an example of workers’ power when they come together.”
Also, member clients were supportive of the effort. “We wouldn’t have been as able to have gone through this process as strongly without their support,” Murtaugh said.
He said DC 37 was at all negotiations and was extremely helpful in turning the negotiations into layman’s terms. Fountain House management refused to voluntarily recognize the organizing effort during the planning. However, it did not attempt significant retaliation or interference except to implement all-staff meetings because of a rule against holding meetings without member clients in attendance. Finally, Fountain House stopped because of workers’ insistence that they “wouldn’t be placated by only words,” Newberg said.
Fountain House workers voted overwhelming to join DC 37 at the end of Dec. 2020. After weeks of negotiations, workers won a four-year contract through Dec. 31, 2025. The contract includes three annual increases with an additional increase in the final year, benefits for part-time and per-diem workers, two new holidays, grievance rights and due process, education and wellness benefits, committees established to address safety and health, and contract administration, compensation, and full staffing for working at residences and other Fountain House locations, longevity pay, and a transportation allowance. They also fought for retroactive pay to Jan. 1, 2022.
“Everybody was excited to receive a signing bonus equivalent, and it’s huge. For many people, it’s going to really change the quality of their life,” Murtagh said. “Going forward, it’s essential to use the union over the next four years to build a stronger Fountain House.”