As striking Howard Brown Health Workers United (HBH Workers United) members represented by the Illinois Nurses Association (INA) and their allies were picketing outside of the Andersonville Brown Elephant location at 5404 N. Clark St. on the afternoon of Jan. 4, an alleged incident took place between two shoppers (a mother and her adult daughter) and some of the striking workers.
CPD was called to the scene, with Howard Brown Health (Howard Brown) organization officials alleging that the shoppers were intimidated by picketers. The union in turn calls that allegation untrue.
In a press release posted on the Howard Brown Health (Howard Brown) website, organization officials alleged that picketers physically surrounded the mother and daughter to bar them entry into the store.
"After our safety team was able to escort them inside, these customers expressed concerns for their safety upon exiting the store," added Howard Brown Health Communications Manager Wren O'Kelley in that same press release. "As a result, the police were called to deescalate the situation and ensure the wellbeing of Brown Elephant customers and employees. We are deeply disappointed in the actions of the INA in this incident, which occurred in the presence of Howard Brown Health employees and the public."
O'Kelley added that Howard Brown filed a charge against the INA with the National Labor Relations Board "for the unlawful and intimidating picket line conduct today at Brown Elephant Andersonville."
HBH Workers United refuted these allegations, maintaining in a statement that onsite private security guards hired by Howard Brown "called Chicago Police on workers and supporters who were chanting and flyering outside the location. Private security guards photographed Brown Elephant and Howard Brown Health employees without their consent, breaking Illinois and federal labor law. Management claimed in a statement following the incident that union members were blocking entry to the shop but workers and witnesses say this is untrue."
HBH Workers United member Gabi Mulder added in that same press release, "This action is deeply concerning to us because it violates HBH's own policy against police involvement and puts our coworkers at risk. Many of our coworkers are queer and we live in a time where police violence against LGBTQ+ folks, homophobia and transphobia are rampant. For Howard Brown Health's private security to put our coworkers at risk is unacceptable."
Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward), who represents the area where the Andersonville Brown Elephant is located, came to the scene after the Chicago Police were called.
In a Jan. 5 press release Vasquez said, "On January 4th at approximately 12:45 p.m., I was contacted regarding a situation at Brown Elephant (5404 N. Clark) in the 40th Ward, where members of Howard Brown Health United and Illinois Nurses Association were striking against unfair layoffs made by Howard Brown Health (HBH) during the holiday season. When I arrived at the scene, I spoke to the picketers, Brown Elephant safety staff, and CPD, who were called to the location by management.
"Brown Elephant Staff alleged that a woman and her daughter were not being allowed to enter, and that a customer was afraid to exit back out of the store. The strike leader flatly denied that they had stopped anyone from entering, stating that they were informing people as to why they shouldn't cross a picket line and providing literature. Hearing the conflicting accounts, I entered the business myself to speak to the woman and her daughter, who communicated that although the interaction was loud, as most protests are, they were not afraid. I offered to escort them out if they wanted me to, and they made it clear that it would not be necessary. They did not express concerns for their safety in regard to exiting the store when I asked them.
"It is disappointing to see an institution like Howard Brown Health, which does so much for our community, misrepresent what occurred yesterday in attempts to undermine those seeking to have a fair negotiation and to protect their members, who are being laid off due to the unfair decisions of HBH leadership. While I recognize that the actions of large pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca and United Therapeutics are the cause of Howard Brown Health's financial challenges, the decision to lay off workers while still expanding their facilities is the wrong one, and their union busting actions make it worse."
When Windy City Times reached out to Howard Brown to comment on HBH Workers United statement about the alleged incident, O'Kelley said in an email to this publication that the organization's previous statement "was not made lightly. An internal investigation confirms the details of our previous statement regarding picketer conduct. In response to this, an on-site staff member called the police to peacefully negotiate ingress and egress to the building, which they did without incident or arrest. At all times, physical safety for everyonepicketers and non-picketershas been our priority. Involving the police is a last resort for our safety team in any situation. Howard Brown Health is confident that any alleged photography by Howard Brown Health in this matter was lawful under the NLRA."
The union similarly stood behind its own account of the events.
"INA maintains our version of events and feels confident that whatever proceedings follow will be resolved in our favor," said INA organizer Sarah Hurd in an email statement to Windy City Times when asked about the above response from Howard Brown management.
The strike, launched after Howard Brown announced layoffs of several workers, took place Jan. 3-5.
For more on this, visit www.windycitytimes.com/lgbt/Howard-Brown-strike-reaches-third-day/74524.html .