Unionized workers picket outside of Howard Brown Health Sheridan at 4025 N. Sheridan Rd. last month. A revived ordinance in City Council would mandate large social and human services like Howard Brown Health sign a labor peace agreement promising not to engage in union busting. (Illinois Nurses Association)

An ordinance that sat idle for more than three years is picking up steam after a contentious joint committee hearing last week that has some City Council members motivated to pass the legislation before the next mayor is sworn in.

The ordinance would establish a labor peace agreement between workers and large nonprofits receiving city dollars who provide critical human and social services in Chicago. Similar labor peace agreements for human services providers are already codified in New York City and in New Jersey.  

In New York, the peace agreement passed quickly in 2021 but some nonprofit social services groups filed a lawsuit against the city over the law calling it a “ticking time bomb.” The city moved in December to have the lawsuit tossed but a judge hasn’t ruled on the case yet. 

A labor peace agreement in Chicago would essentially bar these essential service nonprofits from engaging with any union busting tactics and allow its workforce to seek union representation if they desire. These are organizations with city contracts that reported at least $1 million in revenue. 

This comes during a time where enthusiasm for unions is only growing across the country and union activity is increasing in nontraditional areas.

Andrea Kluger, deputy chief of staff of government affairs for the Chicago Federation of Labor, said at the joint meeting with the Health and Human Relations and Workforce Development committees last week that a peace agreement was important in assuring worker protections at nonprofits.

“Nonprofits provide vital services that our community rely on; however, this does not mean that the labor of their workforce is a charity,” Kluger said. “Our city’s nonprofit workers who continue to provide critical care for individuals throughout the pandemic need a voice now more than ever.”

But nonprofit leaders criticized the ordinance during that meeting saying it wouldn’t achieve its objective. 

Instead of symbolic measures like this, they said, the city’s objective should be to improve their workers’ wages by distributing more funds.

Evelyn Diaz, president of Heartland Alliance, said city funding already doesn’t cover the cost of supporting the organization’s infrastructure or the cost of labor. 

“We want to provide great compensation and workplace environment, in fact, we know we have to,” Diaz said during the meeting. “So what we need are ordinances that help us do that, that ensure more city funds to help us meet the cost of labor year over year. This ordinance doesn’t do that.”

Diaz warned that the ordinance would likely “force many organizations to stop working with the city.” She said most nonprofits already respect workers’ rights to organize and this ordinance wouldn’t stop labor disruptions but would unintentionally “invite” it in. 

Heartland Alliance has a union of its own already, Diaz said, and she claims it has a great relationship with the union. Still, that didn’t stop workers from turning down what she describes as great offers or protesting during contract negotiations late last year.

“All of these activities were lawful and protected and in the end we got a contract,” Diaz said. “But we had labor disruption.”

Though workers at Heartland Alliance who were fighting for a new contract described a different scenario to WBEZ in November. They painted a disparity where workers on the front line  — many whom have master’s degrees — earned less than $40,000 while executives like Diaz earned over $350,000 and offered marginal contract concessions.

Heartland Alliance didn’t respond to a request for comment following the hearing. 

Those sitting on the joint committee simply didn’t buy what Diaz and the other nonprofit leaders were selling. Instead, many were critical of their perceived anti-union rhetoric. 

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) told the Illinois Answers Project she was disheartened by Diaz’s comments and she walked away angry. Rodriguez Sanchez had worked in the nonprofit sector for years before becoming an alderperson. 

“The industry doesn’t really have work stoppage issues because workers are scared to organize and fear retribution,” Rodriguez Sanchez said. “The labor peace agreement is a very simple legislation that would require a nonprofit that gets money from the city not engage in paid union busting.” 

Rodriguez Sanchez agreed that more needs to be done to fund these services but she is aware that some of these nonprofits have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in hiring anti-union consultants. 

“Instead of using that money for those consultants, they can use it for services or their employees,” Rodriguez Sanchez said. “We gave them a chance to tell us what specifically they didn’t like about the ordinance and they couldn’t. After that we are really motivated to get this passed quickly.”

Will Bloom, a labor lawyer, said the proposed ordinance isn’t unordinary and stipulations for receiving city funding is common practice. It simply, he said, asks those providing essential services for the city to agree to not interfere with those seeking labor representation. 

“Basically it’s a bilateral agreement between workers and employers that requires a process of resolving conflict,” Bloom said.  “Which I think is a provision that has a fair bit of teeth in it because without mutually agreed upon conflict resolution that can lead to what’s called economic warfare.” 

That is, he said, when both employer and workers look to do harm through work stoppage. 

Growth in union activity

Unions are in the midst of a resurgence as worker rights have become more of a hot button issue with a labor force that was strained during the pandemic. Favorability for unions grew to 71% approval among Americans in 2022, according to a Gallup poll. That is up from 68% the year before, 64% prior to the pandemic and is the highest approval rating since 1965. 

The National Labor Relations Board also reported the number of union representation petitions increased 53% between fiscal year 2022 and 2021. It is also the highest number of petitions since 2016

The Chicago area was part of this increase as workers filed 136 petitions to unionize with the NLRB in 2022. That is more than the 106 petitions filed in 2021, and the most since 2014’s 175 petitions. 

This coincided with a nearly 20% increase in unfair labor practice charges filed with the NLRB field offices in 2022.

In the past year, workers at some of the city’s largest cultural nonprofits — like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum and Steppenwolf Theatre — have also worked to unionize. 

“We are seeing continued deterioration of working conditions in the wake of the pandemic,” said Sarah Hurd, an organizer with the Illinois Nurses Association. “Specifically in nonprofits, things are somewhat inherent in the model that is unstable which relies on people to work with lower pay because they care about the mission and believe the work is important.”

Workers at Howard Brown Health Center unionized with the Illinois Nurses Association last year and faced a brutal contract negotiation, Hurd said. The motivation to organize was centered around the idea of democratizing the workplace. 

Unionized workers picket outside of Howard Brown Health Sheridan at 4025 N. Sheridan Rd. last month. A revived ordinance in City Council would mandate large social and human services like Howard Brown Health sign a labor peace agreement promising not to engage in union busting. (Illinois Nurses Association)

“They want higher wages, they want a clear pathway of seniority structures but another thing is just the concerns they see on a daily basis,” Hurd said. “They want employers to process their concerns and make changes.”

Hurd said workers are fed up and “we are seeing the new awakening in the labor movement.”

“Workers in the nonprofit world once believed their job was too cushy or their hands were too soft but time and time again we are seeing that idea challenged,” Hurd said. “Graduate students, baristas, athletes and others are organizing which is pushing past the idea that only people who dig holes need a union.” 

Manny RamosAccountability & Solutions Reporter

Manny comes to Illinois Answers Project after four years at the Chicago Sun-Times where he most recently covered transportation. During his time at the Sun-Times, he covered a broad range of topics, including communities and the U.S. Census Bureau. Manny joined the Sun-Times as a Report for America corps member with a mission to strengthen the paper’s coverage of issues facing the city’s South and West Sides. Manny is a Chicago native who has a background in service and solution journalism - which was showcased during his time at City Bureau, a nonprofit civic media organization. He was part of teams that reported on dwindling community-policing initiatives, public health issues related to building demolitions and how incarcerated people struggle to seek post-conviction relief. Manny also has written for the Chicago Reader, WBEZ Chicago, The Groundtruth Project, and South Side Weekly. He graduated from DePaul University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism.