Mar 28, 2023 - Business

Workers at arts nonprofit SAY Sí seek seat at the table

Illustration of a conference table in the shape of a paint palette, surrounded by chairs.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

With a new union in place, employees at SAY Sí are ready to bargain for a first contract and want to gain a larger influence over the direction of the storied arts nonprofit.

Why it matters: SAY Sí employees have joined a national movement of nonprofit workers who are forming unions. As bargaining gets underway between employees and management, others from both sides of the union debate could learn from their experience.

Context: For 29 years, SAY Sí has offered tuition-free arts programming for high school and middle school students, many of whom live in areas of the city underserved by other institutions.

Catch up fast: The nonprofit board voluntarily recognized the union this month, following months of disagreement after employees went public with their union drive last fall.

  • The board initially declined to recognize the union and argued to the National Labor Relations Board that some employees were not eligible.
  • The NLRB ruled last month that the employees sought by the union were eligible, and set an election. The board recognized the union in lieu of an election.
  • The 29 employees are now represented by the United Professional Organizers.

What they're saying: SAY Sí employees worry the drawn-out process to have the union recognized could signal lengthy bargaining ahead.

  • "I don't know if we're gonna have a contract in two weeks or if we're gonna have a contract in two years," Jackson Lundquist, a studio assistant in the media arts program, tells Axios.
  • Employees were also alarmed by the board's decision to hire law firm Ogletree Deakins to represent the nonprofit throughout NLRB hearings, pointing to the firm's history of helping companies end union efforts. They said they believed the board didn't communicate its intentions.

Yes, but: The board is sticking with Ogletree for now, but it is looking into other firms, board president Jason Moran tells Axios.

  • "We've heard their concerns and taken them into consideration," Moran tells Axios. "I do think the board can communicate a little better and it's something we need to work on."
  • Moran attended SAY Sí programs as a child, as his children do now, and said he wants to see the organization succeed.
  • "I think it's a good thing," Moran said of nonprofit workers unionizing. "If we’re heading in that direction, let's embrace it."

Details: The board proposed beginning bargaining in mid-April, Moran tells Axios. Employees are seeking:

  • Better pay.
  • A pipeline for part-time workers to become full-time workers.
  • Transparency and communication from the board around their decision-making.
  • A say in the nonprofit's operations and future.

The big picture: Nonprofit workers are unionizing at an increasing pace, the Associated Press recently reported.

  • Employees often care deeply about nonprofit work but are paid less than they would make in the private or government sectors.
  • "Nonprofit workers in many ways are doing work that's for the public good. But they're doing that work oftentimes unprotected, for very little pay," Alex Birnel, advocacy director for voter registration group MOVE Texas, told supporters last weekend. "They're asked to do more with less, which is an experience that a lot of workers understand."

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