Non-nurse employees from every Howard Brown Health, Broadway Youth Center and Brown Elephant announced their intentions to join the union that Howard Brown Health nurses previously established in 2019 at a rainy press conference June 6 in front of the Howard Brown administrative offices in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood.
This has been in the works since late 2021.
Howard Brown Health nurses, who won their first union contract three years ago, are represented statewide by the Illinois Nurses Association (INA). The INA will also be representing the more than 450 non-nurse employees under a singular Howard Brown Health union banner.
Speakers included Chicago Ald. Sue Sadlowski-Garza, Chicago Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, Howard Brown Health Aging Services Case Manager John Matz, Brown Elephant employee Ronnie Peterson, Howard Brown Health nurse Ruth Oppenheim-Rothschild, Howard Brown Health therapist/intake coordinator Rachael Goins and Howard Brown Health Patient Services Representative Shaddiyyah (Shay) B. Daniels-Miller.
"For a place that is supposed to be rooted in LGBTQ liberation and empowerment ,we believe the only way to do that is with a union that represents workers," said Matz, who also specifically mentioned that he was happy this was taking place during Pride Month.
Matz added that they will be fighting for a living wage, affordable health insurance, protections from unjust management retaliation and, especially, safe working conditions due to the ongoing COVID pandemic.
"Any time the management of Howard Brown does anything with another healthcare provider or pharmaceutical company there is always a contract," said Ramirez-Rosa. "Corporations know the importance of a contract under this capitalistic system, yet when workers want a contract to make sure they will not be retaliated against or fired for any reason … and good benefits, then management says no.
"If Howard Brown wants to stand up for the LGBTQ community, people of color and other workers who face discrimination in the workplace then they should lead by example and voluntarily recognize this union and start working on a contract with all of you today."
Peterson said they have worked at Brown Elephant since 2019 and that most of their co-workers are queer and living paycheck to paycheck.
"Therefore, they are disenfranchising the very community they aim to serve by not offering their majority queer staff full time status with benefits or equitable wages," said Peterson. "The staff of Brown Elephant brings in millions of dollars for Howard Brown Health every year and we are not recognized for this because our jobs are considered 'unskilled labor.'"
Peterson added that during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic they were moved from their Brown Elephant job to the clinic to work in facilities and given a $3/hour raise where they did almost no work for days at a time. Peterson said that when the stores re-opened they went back to their online reseller, furniture mover, janitor and clothing retailer jobs while also losing their $3/hour raise.
"Howard Brown Health does not recognize the back breaking work we do at Brown Elephant," said Peterson. "There is no path to becoming full time which means we do not receive benefits. We want to ensure that long-term Brown Elephant employees … have a path to full time status with benefits … and that our stores are adequately staffed to handle the ever increasing volume of donations from the community."
"This is a historic moment for LGBTQ health workers everywhere," said Oppenheim-Rothschild. "I have been a nurse at Howard Brown for almost seven years … When we first came together to form a nursing union three years ago [and got our first nursing contract], we dreamed of this moment … Today, as we re-enter contract negotiations, I am thrilled to join my fellow workers as they begin the fight for a wall-to-wall union."
Oppenheim-Rothschild added that things have gotten better overall due to their union contract. She added that now they are demanding a seat at every decision-making table involving everything that affects patient care and their daily work. Oppenheim-Rothschild said every Howard Brown Health employee is tired after over two years of working through the COVID-19 pandemic and this is exacerbated by management putting "money and public image ahead of its workers and patients."
"To the executive leadership team at Howard Brown Health," said Oppenheim-Rothschild. "I hope you see that delay tactics and dirty bargaining did nothing to stop us, and that this time around, you will work to quickly ratify a fair contract for the nurses and the wall-to-wall union" … LGBTQ health begins with LGBTQ health workers, and our health depends on our solidarity."
"I have felt so lucky to work at a well known and esteemed organization that serves patients regardless of their ability to pay," said Goins. "In the past few years, however; six therapists from my team alone have left due to burnout, mistreatment and a lack of response from leadership to [address their concerns.] There has been an unwillingness to increase the number of full-time therapists providing long-term trauma therapy.
"Rather than retaining workers … Howard Brown has relied too heavily on its reputation to attract new talent [and] on the goodwill of its staff to endure dysfunctional workplace conditions because they are passionate about the work."
Goins added that she has felt taken for granted and this includes not getting the raise she was promised once she received her clinical license. She said leadership told her a clinical license was not needed for her job as an intake coordinator. Goins said leadership only relented when she threatened to quit. She added that this took a toll on her, including wondering if she could trust management anymore. Goins said that by forming this union "we can prevent capricious and arbitrary decisions like this from happening again."
"In March 2022, I was unjustly terminated by Howard Brown Health stating that I violated the attendance policy because I was a no call/no-show despite letting them know [that I was unable to be at work due to health reasons]," said Daniels-Miller.
Daniels-Miller said that she has to supplement her low wages by driving for Uber eats and Instacart. When Daniels-Miller was Ubering on January 9 she got locked out of her car on one of the coldest days this past winter and woke up at the hospital with severe frost-bite. She said the doctors told her that her fingers would have to be amputated but that did not happen due to a later hand surgery. Daniels-Miller went back to work almost immediately but when the surgery took place she had to stay home until March 7. She said her practice manager boss did not seem to care about her fingers at all during this process.
Additionally, Daniels-Miller said in early February she was diagnosed with a deadly blood infection which required emergency surgery to save her life. This is what set into motion her eventual termination that she successfully fought and was subsequently reinstated. Daniels-Miller said that despite getting her job back she is facing issues with being put on a regular schedule.
"I believe this union is something that [we all need] because had I not had the courage and ability to advocate for myself I would not be standing in front of you all today," said Daniels-Miller.
"I listened to your story Shay and it bothers me because Chicago has always been a union town," said Sadlowski-Garza to close out the event. "We have more local one's than any other city in the nation … People gave their blood, sweat and tears and sometimes their lives to form a union; to have a safe environment and good working conditions. That is what is right and just. It sounds to me like Howard Brown in not doing that … How can you be a healthcare agency and be judgmental and not take care of your workers? I am so proud of the work you are doing … and for standing here today … You are not just changing the Howard Brown atmosphere you are setting a precedent across the city."
Sadlowski-Garza said this Friday in the Chicago City Council Workforce Development Committee, of which she is the chair and Ramirez-Rosa is a member, will be voting on Resolution 2022-144 that gives this union a voice.
See illinoisnurses.com and HBH Workers United's website at linktr.ee/hbhwu .