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labor At Outside In, An Overwhelming Vote to Unionize

The Outside In unit will consist of about 125 workers in about 50 separate classifications. Alongside the vote to unionize, Outside In employees who hold advanced degrees also voted 21 to 7 to be in the same AFSCME bargaining unit.

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At Outside In, workers celebrate an 88 to 18 vote in favor of unionizing.

By Don McIntosh

PORTLAND — The union campaign at Outside In began with a stabbing.

Workers at the homeless youth non-profit had been feeling unsafe, and some complained to managers about a lack of training or any plan for what to do in the event of violence. Their complaints weren’t acted on. Then at 10:35 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7, two male staff members were stabbed by an Outside In client. The attacker was arrested, and is being held on felony assault charges. The workers were taken by ambulance to the hospital, and recovered, but decided not to return to work.

But other Outside In workers decided it was time to take action. As individuals, they’d had no success getting managers to deal with their concerns. What if they formed a union?

The stabbing was the first violent incident in Outside In’s 50-year history. But some said it laid bare the gulf between front-line staff and managers who hadn’t taken safety seriously.

From its downtown headquarters at 1132 SW 13th Avenue, Outside In provides a range of services to homeless youth, many of whom are also dealing with addiction and behavioral health issues. Services include health care, drug treatment, transitional housing assistance, job training, even tattoo removal. Today, the organization has grown to about 170 employees, and an annual budget of nearly $12 million.

We are coming together to form a union and harness the power of collective bargaining to raise standards for the workers of Outside In and across the industry so that social service jobs can be good jobs with less turnover and more stability for our clients.” — campaign mission statement

The effort to unionize picked up momentum in January, after workers formed an organizing committee and began working with Oregon AFSCME. The organizing committee decided Oregon AFSCME was a good fit because it represents workers at similar nonprofits, including Transition Projects and Central City Concern.

In February, committee members laid out what they’re seeking in amission statement: “As workers at Outside In, we care deeply about our clients,” the statement says. “To that end, we are coming together to form a union and harness the power of collective bargaining to raise standards for the workers of Outside In and across the industry so that social service jobs can be good jobs with less turnover and more stability for our clients. … We ask that our coworkers come together and stand with us in solidarity to fight for an open, compassionate and democratic workplace that values every individual that comes in contact with our programs.”

That client-focused message resonated with staff, says clinic operations assistant Eddie Charlton.

“How you treat your care workers is a direct reflection of the value of the care you provide,” Charlton said. “And turnover has become a hindrance to the mission of our organization.”

“Below a supervisory level, there’s only a handful of people that were there when I started [two years ago],” Charlton told the Labor Press. “We’re losing time, money and resources constantly training new staff. And we have trouble hiring for positions because they aren’t being listed at a market rate.”

With the union campaign under way, Outside In executive director Kathy Oliver announced plans to retire in June after 38 years. And she began sending emails to staff arguing against unionization.

“Outside In’s leadership does not believe a union would ultimately benefit Outside In, its employees, and its clients,” Oliver wrote in a mid-March email to staff that was shared with the Labor Press.

But a majority of the workers disagreed, and signed cards saying they wanted to join AFSCME. Workers asked Oliver to voluntarily recognize their union; she declined.

So on April 27, AFSCME asked the National Labor Relations Board to schedule a union election.

Though Oliver expressed her opinion in multiple emails to staff, Outside In didn’t hire union-busting consultants or wage a full-fledged anti-union campaign like many employers do.

“I appreciated that they were pretty straightforward and did not spend client resources on consultants or attorneys,” said Oregon AFSCME organizer Doug Lantz.

The union election took place May 15-16, and the result was an overwhelming 88 to 18 vote in favor of unionizing.

The newly unionized unit will consist of about 125 workers in about 50 separate classifications — from physicians and psychiatrists to bookkeepers and interpreters. Alongside the vote to unionize, Outside In employees who hold advanced degrees also voted 21 to 7 to be in the same bargaining unit as their non-professional coworkers.

Now the two sides will meet to negotiate a union contract.

What do workers want to see in such an agreement? For starters, concrete emergency procedures, to allow people to react quickly. Better trainings for de-escalation, maybe even self defense courses. And better wages and regular wage increases — to curb staff turnover.

“We’d like to create a contract with Outside In that allows us to retain our highly qualified workers,” Charlton says, “in order to more sustainably serve our clients.”