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St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Group of Jewish Family Services employees seek to unionize

Ellen Futterman

Workers at Jewish Family Services are trying to form a union, citing a need for improved work conditions and stronger employee protections at the nonprofit social services agency.

They are organizing with the Communications Workers of America Local 6400 as Jewish Family Services Workers United (JFSWU). About 30 of JFS’ current 53 employees would qualify to be part of the JFSWU bargaining unit; they are not in supervisory or managerial roles.

“Those of us who want to unionize support the important work that JFS does in the community,” said Kelly Baker, a member of JFSWU and a JFS art therapist who works in area schools. “We just want fair treatment and a working environment that is supportive and more collaborative, not top down.”

JFS provides services for children, families and older adults designed to help alleviate hunger and improve mental health. It operates the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry and child abuse prevention programs.

Baker, 33, and JFS office manager Sydney Bolton, 27, explained that some of the provisions workers are looking for in a union contract include better wages, especially for hourly workers at the food pantry; protection from unfair termination; the right to have union representation when meeting with supervisors; additional pay when taking on more responsibilities; better health, vacation and sick leave benefits and job description clarity.

Molly Salky, president of the JFS board, said management first learned of the unionization push when two employees met with JFS CEO Miriam Seidenfeld in March.

“We announced to Miriam we had a majority of workers who decided they want a union,” said Baker, “and presented her with the proper paperwork” for JFS to voluntarily recognize the union. 

Seidenfeld said she wanted to review the paperwork as well as talk to the board. About a week later, union organizers learned that JFS would not voluntarily recognize the union, so organizers requested an election with the National Labor Relations Board.

“Had JFS agreed to voluntarily recognize the union, it would have removed our staff’s ability to vote and would have required all of JFS’ non-supervisory personnel to immediately become union-represented – even if they did not want to be in the union,” said Salky. “The only way to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard is to preserve their right to vote in a secret ballot election presided over by the NLRB.”

On April 4, members of the steering committee of Jews United for Justice (JUJ) met with Salky and Seidenfeld to discuss the union organizing campaign. At that meeting, JUJ was assured JFS would be fair and conform to Jewish and JFS principles throughout the union process, despite the fact that JFS is represented by Ogletree-Deakins, which has a reputation of being anti-union. 

Salky said that JFS has used Ogletree-Deakins as legal counsel for 20 years or so and did not choose them specifically for this issue.

David Lander, chair of the JUJ steering committee, explained in a letter dated May 2 that after meeting with Seidenfeld and Salky, JUJ met with some JFS employees, and “saw written materials that led the union (to file) unfair labor practice charges against JFS.”

“Unfortunately, what we heard and saw was totally consistent with boilerplate messaging and tactics common to aggressive anti-union campaigns orchestrated by law firms such as Ogletree-Deakins,” Lander wrote.

He sent the letter to Salky, asking her to disseminate it to all JFS board members and past presidents so they were aware of the situation. He also urged board members to resolve this problem “respectfully.”

Meanwhile, JFS petitioned the NLRB in early April to break JFSWU into three bargaining groups and a hearing on the matter took place later that month. On Friday, the NLRB ruled to allow two bargaining groups should the non-supervisory professionals in JFSWU decide they want a separate unit. They can also choose to remain as part of CWA/JFSWU. One or both groups could also vote not to join the union. 

The election is currently pending while the NLRB investigates the unfair labor practice charges filed by the CWA on behalf of JFSWU. 

Salky said JFS will “value and respect” the outcome of the election but worries about the cost a union might have on the organization.

“We are very concerned these organizing efforts could potentially have a negative impact on our ability to provide essential services to thousands of people in the St. Louis area who depend on us,” said Salky. “These are additional financial expenses and time commitments with managing a unionized workforce which could result in JFS being forced to cut services or find alternative funding sources.”

Baker and Bolton said the last thing JFSWU wants is to negatively impact the good work JFS does in the community.

“Some of our wants are aspirational, we understand that. We’re not looking to financially break JFS,” said Baker. “We just want the chance to sit down at the table and negotiate.”

If CWA/JFSWU is successful, it won’t be the only local Jewish organization to unionize. Seventy-four of the Jewish Community Center’s 148 employees are in the JCC Employees Union, which dates back to at least 1975. 

According to the J, its union membership consists of hourly, full-time, non-supervisory employees in positions such as early childhood teachers, building and grounds staff, lifeguards/swim instructors, adult day center program assistants and administrative assistants in non-confidential roles. The J also has a few positions where it is the employee’s choice if they are in the union or not. These include hourly, full-time, non-supervisory employees such as personal trainers and program staff.

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About the Contributor
Ellen Futterman
Ellen Futterman, Editor-in-Chief
A native of Westbury, New York, Ellen Futterman broke into the world of big city journalism as a general assignment reporter for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in the latter part of the 20th century. Deciding that Tinsel Town was not exciting enough for her, she moved on to that hub of glamour and sophistication, Belleville, Ill., where she became a feature writer, columnist and food editor for the Belleville News-Democrat. A year later the St. Louis Post-Dispatch scooped her up, neither guessing at the full range of her talents, nor the extent of her shoe collection. She went on to work at the Post-Dispatch for 25 years, during which time she covered hard news, education, features, investigative projects, profiles, sports, entertainment, fashion, interiors, business, travel and movies. She won numerous major local and national awards for her reporting on "Women Who Kill" and on a four-part series about teen-age pregnancy, 'Children Having Children.'" Among her many jobs at the newspaper, Ellen was a columnist for three years, Arts and Entertainment Editor, Critic-at-large and Daily Features (Everyday) Editor. She invented two sections from scratch, one of which recently morphed from Get Out, begun in 1995, to GO. In January of 2009, Ellen joined the St. Louis Jewish Light as its editor, where she is responsible for overseeing editorial operations, including managing both staff members and freelancers. Under her tutelage, the Light has won 16 Rockower Awards — considered the Jewish Pulitzer’s — including two personally for Excellence in Commentary for her weekly News & Schmooze column. She also is the communications content editor for the Arts and Education Council of St. Louis. Ellen and her husband, Jeff Burkett, a middle school principal, live in Olivette and have three children. Ellen can be reached at 314-743-3669 or at [email protected].