Interview with Brandworkers Staff Union

Stony Brook Worker Editorial &Brandworkers Staff Union 

Brandworkers Staff Union include Emith Escobar (Brandworkers Campaign Dept. Community and Digital Organizer), Yolanda Santoni (Brandworkers Lead Organizer), Joe Seider (Brandworkers New Organizing Coordinator), Cody Eaton (Brandworkers Organizer), Christa Tandana (Resource Mobilization and Operations Coordinator), Lani Defiesta (Director of Resource Mobilization and Development), Raquel Florez (Event Coordinator). 

SBW:Can you tell our readers about Brandworkers?

Cody: Brandworkers is a nonprofit worker center that supports food and beverage production workers to build their own unions.

Brandworkers Staff Union Members

SBW: You recently founded the second solidarity staff union in NYC for the nonprofit sector, shortly after NY Met Council. What were some of the reasons and observations that showed you the necessity of such a union?

Emith: At first it started as a practice in the theory of what we were trying to do with other workers. And then it quickly evolved into us realizing that there were a lot of issues, internal issues, with Brandworkers. I think some of those issues were about how it dealt with its workers, specifically workers who are gender non-conforming, people of color, and part-time. I fell into two of these categories, I am a person of color and  I’m also a part-time worker. I felt oftentimes that I was going way over my hours and I was being asked to maintain a stable schedule and then roll my hours to the next week. So in theory, eventually I would just roll them until I guess I leave and then who knows what happens to those hours. But I was still working 30 plus hours a week and only getting paid for 25 and sometimes, not even on time.

The way that it worked is you had to track your own hours and there wasn’t a designated day when you’d have to submit your hours for the week, for the two weeks that you worked. Because we used to get paid biweekly. So sometimes the person who’s in charge of that would kind of message you, “Hey, it’s due on Tuesday, or due on Thursday, or whatever other day.” And you might not be working that day or you might not have scheduled that in to look back and track exactly what your hours are. So some weeks you wouldn’t get paid until the following payroll, essentially another two weeks after, other times you would get paid maybe a few days later. But either way, it was kind of difficult to figure out when I’m getting paid just because I didn’t know when those hours were gonna be due. This made it difficult for myself financially.

I also think there were some issues with some of the management and Brandworkers. Specifically my supervisor was someone who didn’t really respect me, my time or my ideas. The person would constantly contact me before and after hours, they would take over some of my ideas and kind of remix them as their own. There were also some inappropriate comments and physical actions that occurred. So those are some of the things that led me to believe that a staff union would be able to change that dynamic and be able to actually protect myself from having to be put in that position.

Cody: I started doing this to learn how it would work to build this type of solidarity as a process. But by the time we had our first meeting, it became very real and became clear that there were issues I didn’t know about that needed to be addressed urgently. And that quickly became the driving motivation and force behind this effort to continue.

SBW: How many people in the workplace are involved in the union now?

Yolanda: 95% of the staff is involved in the staff union.

On October 15, GSEU UAlbany  former organizer Rachel Rampil, UUP ally David Banks, ACCFL president Ibrahím Pedriñán, and other community allies and alums showed up for the Fees protest at the Homecoming Pregame event outside the football stadium at UAlbany. 

SBW: What was the response in general from Brandworkers when you started this union and in terms of addressing these problems as a whole?

Emith: I think we did the march on the boss, the virtual march on the boss on September 30th. We did it at our staff meeting. We all came in, multiple different people, read out different sections of our demands and then we just left the meeting afterwards saying basically you guys have a certain amount of time to respond. And literally the day after, so on October 1, we got a text back from management and our executive director saying that Brandworkers voluntarily recognizes the staff union. Then, following that, we scheduled a meeting to negotiate on some terms and clarify some demands. Since then, I think most of them, a good portion of those demands have been met. Other ones are in the process of being worked out. But overall, I think it’s been so far a positive response from management. What do others think? 

Yolanda: I mean, I agree. We came into our staff meeting that we usually have. We laid out the demands, they listened to all of our demands and they came back very quickly recognizing the union. And we haven’t had any resistance. I wish it was like this in everybody’s processes, but so far there has been no need for public action. All demands are being met in a timely fashion and if they can’t be met on the time set, they are discussed and we assess and review and have been moving forward.

SBW: What does the staff union aim to change in the nonprofit sector beyond Brandworkers?

Joe: We organize with the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), and with that comes kind of a different model than you would get out of an AFL-CIO style union or a union that has staff. We put this all together ourselves, which is a topic for another day. But we have full control over our vision with the exception that it has to fit into the constitution of the IWW. We did not go for an election, we went for recognition based on the power we had. And likewise, we are not going for a contract. We have a workplace agreement, with a kind of a ceasefire with management, meaning as long as management is moving on our demands, we won’t take direct action. But if there’s a stall or we feel that they’re doing things in bad faith, we have an escalation plan ready.

So we’re hoping that this model gets all of our demands met and then we would be able to tell other nonprofit sector workers in New York City, “Hey, this worked for us!” This model might be better than going the traditional route of shopping around for a union, having their staff come in and run an election, going to the boss to negotiate for an extended period of time. That’s fine. That works for mostly every union in the country and that’s a model that people should still pursue. We’ve taken a different route and if it does work and we get our demands met in a timely manner, I think it could provide a model for other nonprofits.

A much, much longer term goal would be to turn a network of IWW unions at nonprofits in the city into an industrial union where we’re all together in one union and we’re kind of moving demands forward as multiple shops at a time to raise the standard across a geographic location. Maybe that’s New York City, maybe it’s the tri-state area. But that’s a model that the IWW has. We would be trying to implement that if what we’re doing in one shop works, have it work at another shop, at another shop, et cetera, and then kind of take an industrial approach.

Emith:One of the reasons why we decided to go with the IWW is that this is the problem with a lot of other nonprofits, that they’re just too small to be taken in by some of the larger unions. If we had hit some of those larger traditional unions, I don’t think they would’ve given us much support since there’s only really nine of us. I think that this type of organizing, the one that we did partnering with IWW, is probably a more viable option for a lot of small New York City nonprofits. I think most of the labor nonprofits are about our size, if not maybe just a couple extra employees. But I think most New York City nonprofits would be too small for a larger traditional union to actually engage in their campaign.

SBW: You made the distinction between a traditional contract and a workplace agreement. Would you have some more things to add on this matter, what are the advantages of a workplace agreement in the IWW vision? How can it be more effective? 

Joe: I would say that the first thing you have to look at is how much density your union has in the workshop. If you have 100% of non-management in agreement and in solidarity together, you can try something like this. If you have only one section of the workplace or you have 65% in the union or supporting the union, then I don’t know how effective that model would be. But since we were in a position where it was all of the non-management workers in agreement, we have the solidarity to pull off going for an agreement rather than a contract. So that’s the first step, that’s what you should think about before you make that decision. How much power do you have? If you’re wall-to-wall you could try this, try the workplace agreement. What separates a workplace agreement from a contract legally is that it’s not gonna have a no-strike clause. So we did not give away for any portion of time while the agreement stands our right to take direct action. If you don’t have 99% support and solidarity, maybe you have support, but you still have infighting on the committee, you have to be together to do this, you have to be 100% together. 

SBW: What do you think are some of the unique challenges that workers in the nonprofit sector face?

Emith: I think that it’s a little easier sometimes to be rooted in the cause. You start doing things not for, it’s not the traditional, “hey we’re a family,” or “Oh you should do this ‘cause you want to move.” It’s a lot of, you should do all this work and you should do all this extra stuff and put up with certain things that you might not be comfortable with because it’s for the greater good and they try to exploit your vision and what you want to do for the gains of the organization. At the end, you do want to move the vision forward but not by sacrificing yourself.

Yolanda: Working for such a small nonprofit organization is very different from working for a huge bureaucratic union. They have their departments, everybody focuses on their work. In a small organization like ours, like Emith said, most of the work that’s not picked up or if there’s a staff who’s not available, it’s picked up by the workers. So there is not a clear departmental distinction. I would say, because we all have to be involved, because we believe in the vision, we sometimes overcommit our time and that becomes a problem because when you start overcommitting your time, you lose yourself in that and before you know it you’re fried and burnt out.

SBW: Can you let us know of some campaigns that you’re planning to do with this union in expanding it, or campaigns in your workplace for bettering the conditions of your workplace, or any campaigns that you have for going forward?

Yolanda: I think right now we’re in the middle of our process and we would like to see it through so that we can use it as a model moving forward and involve other nonprofit organization, having the capacity to be able to detail from A to Z, the steps that we took to get there, and being able to share those tools. 

Emith: Just adding on to what Yolanda said, I think personally the vision for our union now and Brandworkers, and it was part of one of our demands, was to move to a cooperative model here instead of the traditional nonprofit model, business model, we’re trying to become a worker-self directed nonprofit. Personally I’m really interested in continuing to organize other nonprofits. I think that there’s a lot of other people out there who are in nonprofits who don’t know that what they’re experiencing is exploitation and abuse for the cause, especially here in New York. I think there’s a lot of organizations that are ready to be activated into a campaign similar to ours.

Yolanda: We really get lost because the people who do this kind of work do it because it’s a commitment to society to help make change in the world. Sometimes we have that which you may call hero syndrome, where you want to take on the world and you lose yourself. I mean you even lose the attention toward your family because you’ve made this commitment. This is not a nine to five job. This is a job that comes with passion, that comes with real life commitment. And it’s really easy to lose the line where you separate what life is and what work is without feeling guilty. I think one of the steps that drove us was the fact that we were all seeing that and you know, you sit there and you say, I’m out here fighting for those that don’t have a voice and shit. I’m being, excuse the French but, I’m being exploited. We should lead by example.

SBW: What recommendation would you have to nonprofit workers who might be reading this or those who want to start organizing in their workplace or address similar issues? How can they get in contact with you?

Emith: I guess I would say the best way to start organizing is just talk to your coworkers. I think that’s the building block of any good campaign, is to start talking to your coworkers, especially those who are not the ones you don’t interact with as often. A lot of what organizing is building a community. I think a lot of us are pretty new to Brandworkers, but after going through the process, I think we all know each other pretty well and consider each other friends and if someone wants to get in contact, I’m going to send you our email and our Twitter handle and whoever else is interested in organizing their nonprofit can reach out to us and we can lend some support.

SBW: What do you think is the role of the nonprofit sector or nonprofits like Brandworkers, in the class struggle as a whole?

Joe: I would say like any other industry, it should be in the control of the workers. The question of where the industry stands in the class struggle, it definitely has issues of being captured by capital and being a place where money comes in and then is given out based on a set of criteria. But the more control that workers have over that, the more equitable it’ll become. Right now, probably it has very little chance at helping the class struggle, but the more unions that are in this sector, the more we can shift that to where that money starts ending up helping and developing programs that do help class struggle. So I would say the less union density it has, it’ll never be an option. We’re hoping that what we’re doing here moves it towards class struggle. 

Emith: I think that the way that Brandworkers could contribute is by starting to lead the transformation of our economy from being so focused on just capital instead of making the workers an actual center piece of it, making sure that the workers have fair wages, that they have a livable wages, that they have what they need to be able to live. That it’s not focused on creating products, but it’s focused on making sure that people are actually living a life.

Yolanda: I would add that it would be amazing to see other nonprofits join in the same journey. I think it’ll strengthen us and it’ll make us a powerful force where we would have the capacity to make change collectively in a society that’s lacking. And that’s just something that I’ll continue to think about beyond this.

Cody: I think i;’s important for nonprofits to be self-critical about the way they engage as a part of the nonprofit industrial complex. Because if you’re, let’s say supporting workers, but your fundraisers get all that money from corporate banks and whatnot, that supports worker exploitation, it feels all a bit cyclical. So I think that’s something that our donor organizing team is doing really well, is making sure that the money we accept aligns with our values and that we’re organizing donors as opposed to just trying to counteract the broader forces of the corrupt donors that fund so much of the nonprofit industry.

SBW: Do you have anything to add in closing for our readers?

Cody: One thing I would say is they should reach out to the Brandworkers staff union. If they want support in forming a union of their nonprofit workplace, we would be happy to talk, share notes and support them in organizing. 

Joe: What I would add is, don’t get caught up in thinking, “but a union’s not good for my shop.” Maybe it’s the job that you’ve wanted for a long time, maybe you worked a whole bunch of other jobs you didn’t like until you got into the perfect nonprofit that you wanted to get into. You still deserve a voice and you still deserve dignity. And there’s going to be a common thing framing from management, “well think about the constituent. If the workers and the boss are fighting, how are we going to be helping our community that our nonprofit is serving?” That’s a conversation that happens after the union. The workplace has to be safe, the workplace has to be dignified before any good work is going to come out of it in the public. So I would just encourage anyone to think beyond that pitfall of, “but not my shop.” Everybody deserves this at their job.

Emith: I would just suggest people talk to each other. I think that harassment and abuse and exploitation come in many different shapes and sizes and sometimes it’s hard to recognize when it’s happening until you start talking to other people and you realize that a trend starts to form. And if you start feeling a little weird about that, it’s because there’s probably something wrong going on there. I know that was the same way with me. I didn’t want to believe in it until multiple people started talking about it. We all recognized that there were some major issues that we needed to tackle. 

Yolanda: And I would just say to end it all, if Sunday night your stomach hurts because you are dreading going to work and dreading the week, there’s definitely something wrong. So stand up for your rights, you have them, and don’t allow anybody to shut your voice.