By Mod Behrens
On March 19th, workers at Northampton’s Safe Passage sent out a press release stating their intention to unionize with United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2322, a union chapter currently representing about 4,300 workers primarily in Western Massachusetts as well as Vermont and New Hampshire, representing workers in sectors from graduate students and college faculty to maintenance employees and nurses. Safe Passage is an organization dedicated to offering services to survivors of domestic violence and those escaping dangerous home environments. They offer a 24-hour hotline, trauma-informed counseling, and emergency shelter as well as other advocacy projects and resources, including support for children and immigrant families, and offer services in both English and Spanish. Safe Passage also organizes the annual Hot Chocolate Run in downtown Northampton every December.
“We are forming a union to advocate for the rights of our clients, support each other in carrying out our work, and create a more empowering and democratic workplace. We also believe building a union will provide us new tools to support and care for each other through the ongoing health crisis, and help our entire agency navigate this difficult time while doing everything we can for our clients,” the press release states. In unionizing, employees will join other local safety and assistance organizations like ServiceNet and Tapestry Health which are already represented by local chapters.
“We’re continuing to organize, build our union and support each other through the crisis. We’re asking the Board of Directors to recognize us voluntarily, and calling on the community to speak up in support,” says Annie, a shelter worker at Safe Passage. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for support of workers tasked with providing help for those isolated in unsafe homes is more important than ever. “Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Will Rise During Quarantines,” a March 21st ProPublica story warns. In the article, Gwyn Kaitis, policy coordinator for the New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence, states: “violence increases when you have circumstances such as unemployment and isolation.” Safe Passage employees agree that this will be a particularly difficult time for those most at risk in unsafe situations.
“While we’re grateful for the work management has put into navigating the crisis, we would like to create a workplace where all workers have a say in their decisions, rather than decisions being made from the top down. The union will provide us with a platform to work together and support each other as workers,” says Annie. “We’ve been organizing for about a year, with the intention of fighting precarious employment, advocating for our clients rights and creating more democracy and communication between workers throughout the agency. We talked to a handful of unions and had a bunch of internal conversations on the organizing committee about who to affiliate with, but ultimately we chose to join UAW 2322 because they showed, time and again, their commitment to workplace democracy, rank-and-file leadership and organizing not just for our needs but for our clients.”
Safe Passage workers’ press release also takes note of the current pandemic, emphasizing the need for worker security during a time when organizations like Safe Passage are more necessary than ever. Safe Passage workers are “asking management and the Board of Directors at Safe Passage to show their support for labor justice and their commitment to creating stability through the COVID-19 crisis by voluntarily recognizing our union.” They are asking for a response from management by April 1st. The better support given to workers during this time will directly translate to better services offered to those in need in our community during a terrifying time for many families.
“As a domestic violence agency that advocates for the empowerment of survivors, we know that Safe Passage understands the importance of listening to people to learn what they need most, as they are the experts on their own experience,” says Shira, another shelter worker. “We hope that the Safe Passage board and executive director will view our organizing among staff as a similar effort to create platforms where we can advocate for ourselves and feel heard in ways we previously have not always been able to rely on.”
So far, the following organizations have submitted letters to the board of Safe Passage in support of these unionizing efforts: the Pioneer Valley Democratic Socialists of America, the Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center, The Resistance Center for Peace and Justice, the Trans Asylum Seeker Support Network, Jobs with Justice, and State Representative Lindsay Sabadosa.
“We believe this will create a new path forward for workers, management and clients and benefit the agency as a whole,” says the statement. “We ask the wider community to be in solidarity with our union and join us in celebrating this announcement.”
Mod Behrens is a co-editor of the Shoestring.