A once-dormant City Hall proposal aimed at making it easier for workers at local nonprofits to unionize has re-emerged in the weeks leading up to Chicago’s municipal elections and received pushback from some of the city’s best known human service organizations, including Catholic Charities and the head of the Chicago Catholic Church.
The “Human Services Workforce Advancement Ordinance” would mandate that human service organizations, as a condition of receiving city contracts, have a labor peace agreement in place with a union representing or seeking to represent its employees. Under the arrangements, nonprofits essentially agree not to disrupt unionization efforts and workers agree not to go on strike, boycott or otherwise halt business.
First introduced in late 2019, the ordinance has popped up again before the Feb. 28 election. The original proposal was sponsored by 35 of the council’s 50 aldermen — some of whom have since left the City Council — and still has vocal support from the most labor-friendly aldermen.
But its passage is far from certain.
While unions support the measure, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office has recently declined to comment on it, and administration officials did not testify at a recent hearing on the ordinance. Lightfoot’s administration is still negotiating its latest contract with the union that represents many city workers, including human services employees, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31.
Local human service providers are asking for more time before aldermen take action, arguing fast passage could have dire consequences for nonprofits still recovering from the pandemic, and that the City Council’s efforts would be better focused on boosting consistent funding.
Brad Tietz, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of government relations, told aldermen at the hearing that nonprofits and hospitals the chamber represents would be “devastated” by the ordinance. He said “forced” labor peace agreements, or LPA’s, would lead to economic terms and cost burdens that providers wouldn’t be able to comply with, leading to reduced services, eliminated jobs, or even closure.
The proposal is a solution in search of a problem, he and others said, since work stoppages in the sector are virtually “nonexistent” and suggested nonprofits may opt out of seeking city contracts entirely because of the requirement.
The proposed ordinance would affect nonprofits that contract with the city’s public health and family and support services departments, which provide services for children, seniors and people experiencing homelessness. The organizations also provide domestic violence services as well as those for mental and behavioral health.
Though religious institutions are exempt and the church has historically backed the rights of workers to unionize, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich also expressed his reservations about the ordinance, writing to the mayor and members of the City Council this week “in solidarity” with nonprofits that partner with Catholic Charities.
“Accomplishing our mission has become increasingly difficult amid a significant deterioration in government funding levels over the last five years … the result has been declining reimbursement rates in contracts with human service providers, and the need for us and our peer agencies to provide more and more services not covered by contract funding,” Cupich wrote, adding that while “the church stands with organized labor and its goals of protecting worker dignity … the sector simply needs more funding to fulfill our mission and our commitments to our employees.”
A similar letter was sent last week by a coalition of 44 private human service providers, including the Boys & Girls Clubs, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Christopher House, the YMCA and YWCA, Thresholds, and the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
Sally Blount, CEO of Catholic Charities, said the organization’s average full-time worker earns roughly $50,000 and received 8% raises last year. But with governmental funding down roughly 20% on a real inflation adjusted basis “to where we were 20 years ago,” Catholic Charities “exited out of a large chunk of our senior home care and sold the Holy Family Villa Nursing Home” to pay for those raises. “Those were very painful, difficult decisions.”
Supporters, however, say the goal of the ordinance is to prevent work stoppages that would affect the provision of taxpayer funded services. It also bars nonprofits from retaliating or otherwise coercing employees away from forming a union. That agreement would apply only to service providers with revenues of at least $1 million during their most recent fiscal year.
“I think for some people, the situation with Howard Brown underscored that if you have processes in place, that you can prevent service disruption and ensure that workers rights are respected,” AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall told the Tribune, referring to last month’s strike at Howard Brown Health amid layoffs and buyouts. The ordinance, he said, also would prohibit nonprofits from using public dollars to pay “union avoidance consultants and anti-worker law firms” to dissuade employees from supporting unionization.
Robert Bruno, director of the labor studies program at the University of Illinois, said the agreements essentially neutralize the employer practice of “tooth and nail” resistance to unionization and that “all things equal, the unionization rate is higher where these agreements are in place.”
AFSCME’s ranks could be bolstered should the ordinance pass: the union already represents “lots of human service workers in both the public and (nonprofit) sectors,” Lindall said. The Illinois Nurses Association and the Chicago Federation of Labor are also supportive of the ordinance.
Backers of the ordinance note the city already has LPA requirements in place for construction workers slated to build the Chicago casino and workers at the city’s airports. Service providers said that’s an unfair comparison as nonprofits rely on limited government contracts and foundation money to get by.
A similar effort in New York City, backed by New York’s local AFSCME and signed by then-Mayor Bill de Blasio, required city human services contractors to enter into LPAs within 90 days of being awarded or renewing a city contract. It has since been tied up in court, however, thanks to a suit brought by a group of human service providers. A similar AFSCME-backed measure aimed at behavioral health and substance abuse services also was signed into law in New Jersey in 2021.
Bruno said he is skeptical unionization would harm nonprofits, and, on the contrary, might bolster organizational efforts to wrest more money out of the city if workers and leadership act together. Studies show “the employer is not negatively harmed, they’re no more or less competitive than in the past,” Bruno said. “So why Cupich would believe you’re going to put all these other folks, somehow, out of business, and that’s going to put the pressure on us, it just defies any research, any studies. That’s not what has occurred.”