The United Steel Workers accuse a local nonprofit organization of firing three employees as part of what they call “a classic and vicious union-busting campaign.”
Refugee mentoring nonprofit Hello Neighbor terminated three staff members last week, one month after a supermajority of eligible workers requested voluntary recognition of their bargaining unit and roughly one week before employees are due to vote on whether to unionize with the United Steelworkers.
USW representatives were quick to criticize the non-profit following the terminations.
“We’ve seen these types of anti-union tactics before, but it’s even more frustrating to watch an employer, whose supposed mission is to uplift the community, tear down their own workers,” USW District 10 Director Bernie Hall says in a press release. “Firing employees and taking staff away from refugees and immigrants who need and deserve help and resources does nothing to help anyone."
The organization maintains the firings were driven by economic concerns unrelated to the organizing efforts.
The former workers say they were given no advance notice of their termination. All three had signed the letter requesting voluntary recognition of their bargaining unit.
The termination agreement, shared with Pittsburgh City Paper, asked the fired employees to agree not to seek reinstatement, keep confidential the conditions of their termination, and release their right to bring legal claims against the company in exchange for one month of severance pay.
City Paper spoke to two of the three fired workers, both of whom say they declined to sign the agreement.
Laura Oxenreiter, a former refugee resettlement case manager who was terminated last week, tells City Paper that concerns about high turnover, burnout, and lack of resources to support employees led her to sign onto the union drive at Hello Neighbor.
Another recently fired worker, London Harmony, says the lack of staff support at Hello Neighbor diminishes the quality of service offered to clients.
“[Unionizing] would ensure that we’re able to serve our families better,” says Harmony, Hello Neighbor’s former social media content creator.
The Hello Neighbor organizing committee says management responded to their bid for voluntary recognition with a cascade of anti-union tactics, including pressuring employees to change or step down from their positions, seeking to push individuals into supervisory roles that would make them ineligible to join the bargaining unit, and threatening to freeze pay and raises and delay hypothetical contract negotiations, according to a Feb. 6 letter to the organization’s board of directors.
Workers also claim management has “frozen spending and limited the provision of certain direct goods and services, including diapers and formula, to families in need.”
Harmony says she was surprised by the organization’s response to workers’ request for voluntary recognition.
“We work for a nonprofit and we work to help the community. That response, given what we do, did kind of throw me for a loop,” Harmony says.
Sloane Davidson, Hello Neighbor founder and CEO, tells City Paper in an email that the employees were terminated for financial reasons unrelated to the union drive and denies the allegations of union-busting.
The terminations, which Davidson referred to as “lay-offs,” were a “really difficult decision,” she says. “It in no way has anything to do with the unionization and it's been really hurtful to see it twisted that way by those who wish to malign and manipulate us.”
The organizing committee alleges that Hello Neighbor’s financial health may have been hit by the costs of contracting with anti-union law firm Littler Mendelson P.C. Filings with the National Labor Relations Board show that Littler is providing Hello Neighbor's legal defense against unfair labor practice charges related to the firings.
Littler bills itself as “the single source solution provider to the global employer community,” and exclusively represents management in labor disputes.
“Members of the leadership team have stated that the cost of the legal fees associated with retaining Littler have cut into the organization’s ability to continue providing these necessary goods to families,” the committee wrote to the board in the Feb. 6 letter.
Sarah Miley, a member of Hello Neighbor’s board of directors, is a labor and employment attorney with Littler Mendelson, according to the nonprofit’s website.
Davidson declined to respond to further questions about Hello Neighbor's relationship with Littler Mendelson.
The organizing committee calls on the board to reinstate the fired workers, cut ties with Littler, voluntarily recognize their union, and come to the bargaining table in good faith.
“It's been incredibly disappointing to see the lack of listening and respect for the super-majority of staff who requested to unionize by the Board and CEO,” Oxenreiter says. “Each member of the staff is essential and excellent at their jobs. We stayed because we cared. Each staff member lost is a detriment to the organization's ability to support our new neighbors. I believe that unionization is the most likely way to improve systems there.”
This story was updated at 9 a.m. on Wed., Feb. 8 to reflect that City Paper has independently verified that Littler Mendelson is representing Hello Neighbor in front of the National Labor Relations Board.