‘We want something better for ourselves’

Editor’s Note: SCO Family of Services workers provide care for children with developmental disabilities. Now, 124 workers at the agency’s Sea Cliff facility are standing strong after joining CSEA. Several members of the SCO Family of Services organizing committee recently discussed their experiences with The Work Force’s Wendi Bowie.

SYOSSET — After seeing administrators’ daily disregard for worker safety, unfairness and an overall mismanagement of the facility, SCO Family of Services worker Sirlentor Berry decided it was time to start having conversations with his peers about organizing.

Initial reactions were mostly enthusiastic.

“Most people were only excited about the possibility of negotiating for a higher salary,” said Berry. “I explained to them that the wording of a contract is more valuable than any monetary gain. If management calls you into their office, the wording of the contract can determine whether you are disciplined or not.”

Over time, more workers joined Berry in his organizing efforts and an organizing committee came together.
Many of the committee members’ organizing conversations with colleagues started with a simple ‘hello.’
“I would approach someone and say, ‘hello’ and ask them how they’re doing,” said SCO Family of Services worker Ubiri Obahor. “From there, we delved into what the person wanted and what their expectations were for union membership. We are striving for a conducive and hospitable environment with respect and transparency.”

Speaking with one voice
While in the process of organizing, workers learned that management hired one of the largest union-busting law firms in the country, which tried to sway workers’ opinions by showing them videos riddled with anti-union rhetoric.

In addition, facility managers tried intimidation, specifically, spying on workers and many other attempts to keep the SCO Family of Services campus in Sea Cliff union free.

Fortunately, workers were too smart to fall for the manipulations. The group understood the importance of unity from the very beginning.

“When people speak with one voice, you’re more likely to be heard,” said SCO Family of Services worker Orezi Obahor. “The change didn’t have to come from management, it had to come from us [workers]because we want something better for ourselves.”

“Management has protection, which is why they hired lawyers for themselves and not for us,” said Orezi Obahor. “CSEA is like the backbone for our law because it helps us establish the things that we need to feel safe and protected on and off the job.”

Members also felt the need to organize because they wanted better working conditions for themselves and those who follow them.

“We are our brother’s keeper,” said SCO Family of Services worker Aleta Banks. “A lot of the people who I work with are younger than me and I feel responsible for them, especially when they’re doing their job properly and are still being treated poorly.”

Most groups never achieve 100 percent agreement and the SCO workers are no different. While there were a few workers who opposed organizing, the overwhelming majority of employees supported unionization.

“I reminded people that our dental, medical, vision, health care and, of course, the government gets their cut from every paycheck,” said Orezi Obahor. “Your union is going to protect you and be there for you, why would you not give them money, too?”

“We tried not to focus on negative people,” said SCO Family of Services worker Anita Reynolds. “We just countered every negative statement with something positive.”

CSEA Oyster Bay Local President Jarvis Brown speaks with SCO Family of Services workers at a member meeting. From left, Jarvis Brown and SCO workers Sabrina Parker, Ubiri Obahor, Orezi Obahor and Sarujanie “Rita” Hardat.

Mentoring new members
The group also had CSEA Oyster Bay Local President Jarvis Brown and members of the local’s executive board acting as mentors.

“We gave the organizing committee a foundation regarding a place where they could meet to discuss organizing issues,” said Brown. “I also let them know how important it is to have a union in their facility and how hard they were going to have to work to make that happen.”

Brown and Oyster Bay Local Executive Board members also made themselves available to answer questions and explained CSEA’s organizational structure.

“You have to communicate to educate,” said Brown “If you don’t spark conversations about union activities and teach members about the inner workings of our union, what are you really building?”

Building strength
Our new members describe the experience of organizing as “transformative.”

“This process calls you to step up as a person, not just for yourself, but for the collective,” said SCO Family of Services worker Sabrina Parker. “It brings you to a point where you have to ask yourself some serious questions: How can I be a motivating factor in my environment? How do I get other people to see the importance of what we’re [organizers]trying to accomplish? What do we really want and why do we want it? This process has helped me become a better person by helping me to define myself,” said Parker.
Committee members also say that the organizing process has helped them develop their interpersonal skills.

“When I started taking on leadership responsibilities, I had to start speaking with people that I had never spoken with before,” said Banks. “It taught me that everyone doesn’t receive what you say the same way; you have to cater your delivery based on who you’re speaking with.”
In the end, any negativity the union organizers encountered did not sway them from their mission.

“The pushback made us more determined to do more for people who are working here today and those who will be with us in the future,” said Banks. “Working here will be a better situation for us all now that we have a union.”

— Wendi Bowie

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Wendi Bowie

Wendi Bowie is an award-winning journalist who has focused the majority of her career on covering Long Island news. Her efforts have earned her the Press Club of Long Island Media Award for Public Affairs and the Long Island Coalition for Fair Broadcasting Folio Award. Wendi was drawn to her current position as Communications Specialist for CSEA’s Long Island Region because it speaks to her strong desire to champion the rights of the common man and woman.

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