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At a time of racial unrest, Black workers’ union campaign becomes a battleground

Luis Rodrigues, left, a College Bound Dorchester staffer, and Joe Tache, a former staffer, are seeking to unionize.
Luis Rodrigues, left, a College Bound Dorchester staffer, and Joe Tache, a former staffer, are seeking to unionize.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

College Bound Dorchester has a progressive mission: paying gang members a weekly stipend to get off the streets, go to college, and turn their negative influence into a positive one. But now the groundbreaking nonprofit is caught up in an old-fashioned union battle as a workforce emboldened by nationwide demands for equity confronts a management team grappling with structural reorganization and financial woes exacerbated by the pandemic.

With the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement pushing racial injustice to the forefront of America’s consciousness, the group of largely Black employees serving a mostly Black clientele is demanding more rights, and encountering resistance from their white CEO. Some workers have called management’s actions racist, while others in the community question the union’s tactics, saying it is fanning the flames of inequality to attract new members.

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The workers first reached out to Service Employees International Union Local 888 in January, for advice about organizing a walkout following the layoffs of three co-workers, prompting several staffers to look into forming a union. Then the pandemic hit, disproportionately hurting communities of color and throwing College Bound Dorchester’s finances into a tailspin.

At the end of April, management told the staff that further layoffs could be coming, and the union campaign took off.

Then, over Memorial Day weekend, George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, sparking a wave of protests and a groundswell of awareness about racial inequities.

Suddenly, the union organizing effort took on an even deeper meaning. Employees wanted a greater voice in the organization, as well as higher pay and more transparency and accountability from leadership. A number of them had been involved in gangs, like the people they serve, and the nonprofit relies heavily on them. Being part of a union could empower staff, at a time when real change seemed possible.

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A few days after Floyd’s death, the workers presented a letter to management, signed by a majority of the nonmanagerial employees, asking that their union be recognized voluntarily. Management refused, instead calling for a formal election held through the National Labor Relations Board.

Ten days later, eight workers were laid off — nearly a quarter of the workforce — including five people who had signed the union letter.

SEIU Local 888 blasted out a press release titled “Do Black workers matter?” noting that they had filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB over the layoffs and were holding a protest against “racism and union busting.”

At the demonstration, Darlene Lombos, executive secretary-treasurer at the Greater Boston Labor Council said the nonprofit practiced “racism with a smile.”

Chief executive Mark Culliton fired off a response to the media, saying the layoffs had been in the works before employees announced they were organizing and were due to structural changes and financial hardships. Almost all of the organization’s $4.5 million budget comes from fund-raising, the organization said, and the government and private donations it relies on are expected to decrease 20 to 40 percent due to the pandemic-related economic downturn.

The employees who were let go worked in programs that College Bound Dorchester had previously decided to eliminate to focus on Boston Uncornered, the nonprofit’s signature effort, which pays 45 gang members $400 weekly stipends to enroll in community college.

The layoffs had nothing to do with racism or retaliation, Culliton said in the statement.

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“At our core, Boston Uncornered is about advancing the lives of Black and Brown people in our cities, particularly focused on those who have been failed by most programs and receive limited support from more traditional institutions,” College Bound Dorchester said in a later statement to the Globe. “We push for representation and racial justice every day, in everything we do.”

An NLRB election has been scheduled, and the mail-in vote will be counted Aug. 24.

Joe Tache, one of the eight laid-off staffers, said there are “blatant class and race dynamics” at College Bound Dorchester, where the staff is largely people of color making around $50,000 a year and the CEO is a white man who made $185,000 in 2017, according to a tax document filed with the IRS. (Senior vice president Michelle Caldeira, cofounder of Boston Uncornered, is Black. Her salary is not included in the document.)

Giving employees more say in decision-making and improving their pay and benefits would help the nonprofit become more balanced, said Tache, 25, who worked as an instructor, tutor, and adviser. This is the kind of shift needed to improve the lives of oppressed people, he said.

“When we look at racism in this country, it’s not just about people’s attitudes or what’s in their heart; it’s also about the dynamics of power,” he said.

Millions of people have rallied around the Black Lives Matter movement, said Cedric Johnson, an African American studies and political science professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, but making systemic change is the real test.

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“It’s easy for us to all to get behind the most egregious and extreme abuses of police power; I think that’s an easy sell for a lot of people,” Johnson said. “The more difficult thing is then, if you really think Black lives matter . . . are people also willing to get behind better wages, benefits, the right to collective bargaining?”

Beyond giving workers more clout, unions are a concrete way to close the racial wealth gap, according to a 2018 analysis by the Center for American Progress From 2010 to 2016, the median wealth of nonwhite families with union members was almost five times higher than that of nonwhite nonunion families, a far larger difference than for white families, the study found.

But a union could be detrimental to College Bound Dorchester’s mission in a number of ways, Culliton and Caldeira said. With funding so uncertain, the nonprofit isn’t in a position to sign a contract with binding financial commitments, they said. The autonomy and flexibility needed to work with clients could also be hampered, they noted.

The college readiness advisers on staff already have a major say in the organization, they said, including selecting who receives $1 million worth of stipends. Compensation for college readiness advisers has increased 30 percent, on average, over the past four years, while the leadership team took a pay cut in the fall and agreed to further reductions in April.

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Privately, a local union leader expressed concern about Local 888′s campaign, saying it’s taking advantage of the national racial unrest to influence workers and boost membership, and that it paints the layoffs as racist in order to generate publicity.

Barry Bluestone, professor emeritus at Northeastern University who has studied labor-management relations and is a friend of a College Bound Dorchester board member, said Local 888′s actions appear to be a “smear campaign.” A more collaborative approach is always more productive, he said.

"Of all the organizations I know," he said of College Bound Dorchester, "this may be the least racist in Boston."

Local 888 organizer Hersch Rothmel said it was the workers, not the union, who brought up racism, whether intentional or not — something he said they felt long before the national uprising.

Francisco DePina, who has been on staff for 15 years, said his pro-union co-workers mistakenly think the union can help get laid-off staffers reinstated and would guarantee higher pay and more job security. DePina, one of eight former gang members on staff, worries the union would interfere with his ability to do his job.

“I don’t think we need any other organization to have a say in what we do,” said DePina, 34, who plans to vote against the union.

Luis Rodrigues, a staffer who was also previously caught up in gangs, said that he respects the leadership team but that they don’t always understand how dangerous the job is. Rodrigues said he sometimes has to “string along” gang members for a year or more before he knows if there will be enough resources to offer them a stipend. The final decisions about who gets funded are sometimes made without consulting the advisers in the field, he said. A union contract could stipulate that employees get more access to information about finances and timelines, and could lay out a better system for workers seeking mental health support.

Rodrigues said he has been thinking a lot about race relations recently. And he has realized that seeking equality for the people he serves needs to start with striving for it in his own life.

“I can’t be an advocate to fight for something,” he said, “when I’m dealing with it in my own backyard.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.