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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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JFS workers form two union units in close vote


Workers at Jewish Family Services voted last week to join Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 6400 as Jewish Family Services Workers United (JFSWU). The vote to unionize will affect about 29 of JFS’ 53 current employees.

Based on the votes, there will be two bargaining units within JFSWU, one for professional employees such as communication coordinators, bookkeepers, counselors, school-based therapists, older adult services case managers and Holocaust benefits case managers and a second for nonprofessional employees, including food pantry drivers, office managers and food pantry assistants. None of the bargaining unit employees are in supervisory or managerial roles.

Initially, JFS union organizers had hoped for just one bargaining unit, while JFS management had advocated for three units.

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

According to Tammy Chaffee, district coordinator for CWA, the vote to unionize was close, with JFS professional employees voting 9-7 in favor of the union while the nonprofessionals voted 6-4. The vote was voluntary, and not all employees who were eligible took part.

In March, a couple of employee organizers approached JFS CEO Miriam Seidenfeld, telling her a majority of workers wanted a union and presenting her with paperwork needed to unionize. The organizers’ hope was that management would agree to voluntarily recognize the union.

After consulting with board members, Seidenfeld said JFS would not voluntarily agree, so organizers requested an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The election was held July 2.

“The narrow margin of the vote in favor of unionization underscores that a vote was critical to ensure all of our staff had their voice heard as part of this, as has been our position from the beginning of this process,” Seidenfeld said, adding that JFS would not challenge the election. “Our priority will continue to be fostering an environment where everyone feels they have an important part in driving our mission forward.”

Chaffee said it would likely take a few months for both sides – JFSWU bargaining units and JFS management – to prepare for contract negotiations. Some of the provisions JFS workers said they were looking for in a union contract include better wages and benefits, protection from unfair termination, the right to have a union representative present when meeting with supervisors and additional pay when taking on more responsibilities.

In addition, the NLRB is still investigating unfair labor practice charges levied against JFS. Chaffee said JFS mounted an “aggressive” anti-union campaign that “we felt had crossed the line.” The nonprofit has long been represented by the law firm Ogletree-Deakins, which the organizers said has a reputation of being anti-union.

“We expect these kinds of anti-union campaigns from large corporations. I was surprised that JFS, which is a progressive organization, chose to go down that path,” said Chaffee. “Hopefully, management is willing to work in a collaborative fashion at this point. We really do want JFS to be successful as an organization, and we also want the workers to have a voice at the table.”

Seidenfeld said union passage does not change the organization’s focus on “providing children, adults, and seniors with the support they need to lead vibrant, healthy lives.”

“The vote for JFS staff to form a union does not change that in any way,” she said. “As the contract negotiation gets underway, we will actively participate in a way that best supports our staff and all those we serve.”

One of JFS’ concerns was the effect a union might cost the organization in time and money. Seidenfeld said while it’s too early to know the future impact on the agency’s finances and operations, “as a nonprofit organization focused on enhancing wellbeing in the Jewish and broader community, we will continue to be responsible and grateful stewards of the support we receive from generous donors and other partners.”

Kelly Baker, a JFS school-based art therapist and an organizing member of JFSWU, said that while she was surprised the vote was not more supportive of the unionization effort, she was pleased with the outcome.

“Over the past several months, we lost upwards of 10 (JFS) employees who were supportive of the union,” said Baker. “Between losing them and us getting split into two different bargaining units and the union-busting campaign JFS did, we still won both units. I think all of us are feeling really proud and really tired but we are ready for the next steps.”

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About the Contributor
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].