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Workers at Kansas City domestic violence shelter become first in Missouri to unionize

More than 65% of the social work staff at Rose Brooks voted yesterday to become the first domestic violence shelter in the state. Madeleine Hatler says she hopes other nonprofit workers follow their lead.
Crystal Brigman Mahaney
Missouri Jobs with Justice
More than 65% of the social work staff at Rose Brooks voted yesterday to become the first domestic violence shelter in the state. Madeleine Hatler says she hopes other nonprofit workers follow their lead.

Workers at the Rose Brooks Center in Kansas City voted Thursday to become the first unionized domestic violence shelter in Missouri. More than two-thirds of eligible workers at one of Kansas City’s largest and oldest shelters opted to unionize with the Laborers Local 955.

The vote was 27-18, though shelter leadership has contested one ballot. The union includes workers who handle community programs, patient care, housing and economic services.

Maret Miller has been with Rose Brooks for about a decade, starting as a volunteer. She said the union effort began because shelter management did not respect workers’ insights on how to improve shelter operations.

“We're the ones answering the hotline 24/7,” Miller said. “We're the ones that are seeing people when they first come into the shelter. We are talking to survivors at the scene of a crime. We touch on a lot of different areas of the community and often those are in very stressful, dire situations.”

The 45 employees began their union campaign last year and petitioned to unionize in April.

Andrew Hutchinson, an organizer with Local 955, says the workers received pushback from management almost immediately. The Center contracted a law firm that specializes in union avoidance campaigns, a step that Miller said confused staff and “underscored the reasons we’re doing this.”

In multiple letters and emails obtained by KCUR, Fleming questioned why the Laborers, traditionally a construction union, would be a good fit to represent the shelter employees. Local 955 also represents maintenance workers, bus drivers, office workers and cooks.

Hutchinson said the connection is workers’ idea they should be able to provide for themselves and their families “no matter what type of work they do.”

Scott Mason, director of marketing at Rose Brooks, said the shelter has “long empowered staff to make the choice that is best for the survivors we serve and for themselves.”

Mason said that the voices of the employees who voted to reject the union matter, too.

“We remain committed to listening to all survivors and those we serve,” Mason said. “Our employees are at the heart of the work we do each day and, from the start, we supported our employees' right to a vote, and are respecting the outcome of that vote.”

In an April 24 letter to staff, Fleming urged staff to vote no. She said the union effort could cause fear and concern for Rose Books clients and staff and that it would be difficult to remain unified as a team if the union succeeded.

Fleming accused workers and union representatives of breaching the center’s confidentiality, taking pictures of the shelter location, clients and clients' cars.

“I question our ability to comply with the Violence Against Women Act,” she wrote. “It is difficult to trust individuals who fail to respect the safety and confidentiality of survivors.”

Hutchinson denied the allegations, calling them “bizarre lies,” and said they were meant to dissuade workers from voting for the union. He said workers were hurt by the accusations they’d violated confidentiality and felt Fleming’s letter compared them to the abusers they work to protect clients from.

“In a workplace that is rooted in listening to impacted people and listening to folks as the experts of their own experience, it was disappointing to hear them say, ‘Well, we're not actually interested in listening to the workers,” Hutchinson said.

The union has filed a charge against Rose Brooks with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing leadership of coercive rules and surveillance.

Jackson County legislators Manny Abarca and Jalen Anderson, as well as local labor leaders, supported the union on April 11 when they asked Fleming to recognize the union voluntarily.

In her letter, Fleming said the legislators were acting coercively because the Jackson County Legislature makes decisions about the shelter’s funding. Anderson said their presence was meant to show solidarity.

The day before the election, 10 of the 12 Kansas City Councilmembers sent a letter of support to the unionizing workers.

“By ensuring that you all have the resources you need and the worker protections you deserve, an employee vote to join the Laborers Local 955 means the Rose Brooks Center will continue to contribute so much to our city for many years to come,” the councilmembers wrote.

Rose Brooks was one of the first shelters in the country to allow victims to bring their pets to the shelter with them, responding to research that many victims won’t leave their abuser without their pets. Miller and Hatler are excited to once again be a leader among shelters.

“We're the first to try new, exciting things,” Miller said. “I think with the unionization effort, we can be one of those agencies to set a precedent for other nonprofit workers across the country. And I think we’ll be an important piece of history for the movement.”

Copyright 2024 KCUR 89.3

Savannah Hawley-Bates