Workers at Human Development Center – a private mental-health agency along the North Shore – were backed into a corner. They already had rejected one “final offer” from the employer. Then they rejected a second “final offer.” They set a strike deadline. A mediator had scheduled one, last-ditch bargaining session.
Then HDC pulled a fast one.
Management decided it was done bargaining. Rather than risk a strike, HDC instead imposed its final offer – an offer workers already had rejected.
Among the terms HDC hoped it could force down workers’ throats was a “no strike, no lockout” clause. That language prevented workers from walking out, and also restricted some of the other public actions workers could take.
“People were angry, very angry,” says union negotiator Laurel Leonzal.
Not rolling over
At a meeting where workers hashed out what to do next, member Sue Hall stood up and started singing. She sang the chorus from Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” – “Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union…”
“We were all kind of taken aback for a second,” says Mindy Reid, who was in charge of strike committee activities. Then co-workers started singing along. “We did,” Reid says. “In unison. A capella.”
“That was awesome,” Chelsea Cadwell says. “That was goose bumps.”
Out of that moment, workers decided they were going to stick with each other. Yes, they would pursue federal charges to overturn what they believed were illegal practices by HDC. But workers were also going to force their way back to the bargaining table. They were going to show that they no longer could be isolated and intimidated. They were going to get a contract on their terms, not the employer’s terms.
And they did.
“They basically tried breaking us,” says Rachel Colombe, another union negotiator. “They did whatever they could to shut us up. But we’re still here.”
Back from being invisible
The truth is, the workers’ display of power and unity would have been impossible a year earlier. A year earlier, by any definition, the union at HDC existed in name only. About half the roughly 170 workers were not paying dues. There were times when only two people showed up at the monthly union meeting.
Colombe and Leonzal became the negotiating team because no one else stepped forward. “When we got involved, we had no idea who the union people were,” Leonzal says. “There was just no information.”
At work, managers targeted employees if they talked union. Union material routinely disappeared from bulletin boards. New hires were warned against getting involved.
“Some of them would be specifically told not to talk to me because of who I was,” says Cadwell, who was chair of the HDC bargaining unit. That was illegal, too, but managers got away with it because no one pushed back.
High turnover, and the geographic spread of the agency, did not make it any easier to keep the union active.
The consequences of inaction were predictable. In the previous three-year contract, no one got pay raises. “We did lose quite a bit,” Colombe says. “There were only a handful of people who voted. There was no support.”
When a new round of negotiations started – to replace the contract that expired on Dec. 31, 2012 – HDC maneuvered to get even more concessions.
The HDC workers are the largest bargaining unit in Local 3558, which represents a variety of nonprofits in northern Minnesota. HDC has offices in Cloquet, Grand Marais, Two Harbors, and a half dozen sites in Duluth. (Its office in Superior, Wis., is not unionized.)
“It is really just an astounding group of people that work there,” Colombe says . “What those employees do for those clients out there, that’s amazing. And there’s not a single one of us that’s there because of the money. It’s because those clients come before anything else.”
Reid was new in HDC’s Cloquet office. She started attending union meetings, she says, “because I felt like, our contract is ending, and I haven’t heard anything.” What she found out stunned her.
“I started to say, ‘Do you guys know what’s going on? They really are going to take away all of our sick time, and even though you’ve been at HDC 12 years, you’re going to lose it all. Like, we’ve got to do something’.”
So Reid started by doing something simple: She collected email addresses of co-workers. It was the first step to building an agency-wide network to keep co-workers informed and involved.
Reid, Cadwell, Colombe, and Leonzal held small group meetings. They found members at each location who volunteered as contact people – who would relay information to their co-workers. They sent email updates – and gave printouts to people who didn’t have a home email. They created a phone tree. They created a Facebook page – not only as another source of information, but also so members in different offices could discuss what was going on.
“It was kind of a snowball effect,” Colombe says. “You gather one person, and that person reached out, then you gather another person, and that person reached out. It’s just a matter of grabbing one person, and keep going.”
‘We’ are the union
“The union” became visible on the job. Despite the intimidation that management continued to use, workers gradually took back their workplace.
Members wore union buttons, union bracelets, and green clothing to work. “That was our thing – wear green on your staff meeting day,” Cadwell says. “People were talking, and management was hearing people talk. And they were not happy about people talking.”
Cadwell set a standard for fearlessness. She refused to back down even when her supervisor shadowed her. “I mean, Chelsea couldn’t breathe without her supervisor being behind her, in case she might say something,” Colombe says. Cadwell even wore union colors during an interview for a different job.
“A lot of it was letting members know: They are the union,” Leonzal says. “They have a part. You may not be able to come to a meeting. You may not be able to do the gauntlet. But just wearing that bracelet during staff meetings, talking to other people. Whatever you can do, that’s valuable. And people respond to that.”
Members took all kinds of actions to demonstrate support for their bargaining team, and to demonstrate their individual resolve. It wasn’t just token support, either; the number of members paying dues increased by 60 percent.
During one bargaining session, members drove around outside, honking car horns. At another session, HDC negotiators had to navigate a gauntlet – a human tunnel of union members chanting and waving signs.
“Oh, it was loud out there,” Leonzal says. That demonstration wasn’t just HDC members. It was teachers and letter carriers. It was other AFSCME members from city, county and state agencies. “We had people from Moose Lake, the Range, all over the place.”
That show of solidarity happened because Local 3558 members spoke at central labor council meetings and to every local union that would give them a few minutes on the agenda.
“People’s mailmen were telling them, ‘Oh, I hear HDC is striking. I just want you to know I support you guys.’ People’s mailmen were saying that!” Reid says. “That was huge.”
Making management see green
After HDC tried to implement its version of the contract, members didn’t stop. They put their names on petitions and hand-delivered them to the HDC board of directors. More than 100 workers wrote individual emails to the CEO.
And, to show they weren’t finished, members wore buttons that read: “I’m on break, are you on break?”
“It shows we’re not going to stop talking about this,” Reid says. “We’ll just take a break to talk about it.”
Their refusal to quit worked. Members did force HDC back to the bargaining table. They ratified a new contract that made clear improvements over what HDC had imposed in May.
“United you stand, divided you fall,” Leonzal says. “It’s the only way.”
Members also brought the hammer down on HDC in another way. The agency was forced to settle charges with the National Labor Relations Board. In the settlement, HDC agrees publicly not to do 10 things that violate workers’ rights. Those include prohibiting workers from talking about the union, and threatening or disciplining workers who do.
And the workers got one final piece of satisfaction: The human resources director – the woman who led HDC’s fight against the union – was fired.
Adapted from the September-October 2013 issue of Stepping Up magazine.