At LGBTQ Mazzoni health center, a bitter battle over union recognition

Workers at the Mazzoni Center — the scandal-wracked nonprofit that provides essential health care to Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community — will vote Wednesday on whether to unionize.

The election will be the culmination of a bitter, monthlong campaign that has pitted many workers against a management team that many believe is in desperate need of reform — and that brought in aggressive antiunion consultants to stymie the organizing effort.

“They are waging a protracted campaign of intimidation and misinformation,” one worker said.

Workers’ complaints include institutional bias, pay inequity, and a lack of accountability following the departure of medical director Robert Winn. Staff had alleged sexual misconduct by Winn, and accused Mazzoni leadership of failing to address the issue even after it was reported. The chief executive and some board members stepped down in April.

So, worker organizers, who hope to unionize with the Service Employees International Union, said that their goals include wage equity and benefits, but that those are secondary to addressing institutional problems: systemic bias, mismanagement, a lack of leadership diversity, and inadequate patient care — in particular, wait times sometimes exceeding four months for behavioral heath care, six months for trans care, and three weeks for a sick-patient visit.

“We decided to work for a nonprofit knowing that we wouldn’t be making big bucks,” one worker said. “But we do want working conditions that are fair, and we do want to ensure our clients and patients are protected.”

Interim chief executive Stephen Glassman said he cannot appear to attempt to influence the election. But he acknowledged that he sent an office-wide email telling staff that the union saw them only as a roll of cash. He also brought in one consultant, then another, for what he called “an educational effort” to inform staff how unions function.

A half-dozen workers — all of whom declined to be named, fearing retaliation or termination — described the consultants differently: as aggressive professional union busters.

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Images of emails received by Mazzoni Center staff in advance of the union election.

Labor Relations Institute (LRI) describes itself on its website as “the preeminent firm in countering union organizing campaigns, with more than 10,000 successful campaigns to our credit.” LRI was retained after Glassman terminated the contract of a different firm, Creative Solutions & Visions, which Mazzoni staff had discovered was linked to USA First 4Ever, a right-wing website workers found antithetical to the center’s mission.

Glassman said he had not properly vetted that consultant. Neither firm responded to messages left Monday morning.

Mazzoni has about 140 staffers, 85 of whom are eligible to vote to join one of two bargaining units, organizers said.

Not all eligible workers are enthusiastic about the prospect. One staffer, who declined to be named, described being “vilified and intimidated” by colleagues after speaking out against a union. “There are plenty of us nonmanagers and directors who do not” want to join.

“People are upset and angry and it’s understandable, but it’s not at all clear that bringing in a union is the remedy for all that,” the staffer said, citing worries that the union would slow the pace of reform at Mazzoni, create an even more toxic work environment and charge dues that would counteract any raises achieved.

But those who are for the union described being called into repeated mandatory meetings in recent weeks.

“I went to one of the meetings with the antiunion people, and he screamed in my face,” one worker said. “You’re having people come into our space, try to manipulate us, blatantly disrespecting us, and making the place feel unsafe.”

A letter signed by seven members of City Council and sent to Mazzoni leadership on Monday urged management not to obstruct the unionizing effort. “Bringing in outsiders notorious for harsh, anti-union tactics is not only a concerning use of the nonprofit’s resources, but it risks doing untold damage to the very trust that must be rebuilt if Mazzoni is to flourish,” the letter said.

Amber Hikes, who heads the city Office of LGBT Affairs, has been working closely with Mazzoni over the last six months, including hosting a forum for patients, staff, management, and board members.

The Philadelphia Human Relations Commission (PHRC) also provided training on implicit bias and the city’s Fair Practice Ordinance, following a study of racial bias across the city’s LGBT-focused business community that took special note of discrimination at Mazzoni. At least one complaint about Mazzoni has been filed to PHRC recently, a city spokesperson confirmed.

“Especially when we look at the very grave nature of the accusations about Mazzoni, community members felt that organization went unchecked for quite a while, and they were not being held accountable,” Hikes said. “The Mazzoni Center serves an incredibly important and frankly an essential function here in the city. … It can’t fail. It just can’t.”

She said the center serves 1,000 people a year living with HIV, and 2,300 transgender clients. It is funded in part by the city.

Glassman said reforms are in the works: He has conducted listening sessions with staff, and convened an internal committee to consult on searches for top-level staff. He’s creating positions: directors of diversity, compliance, education, and communication. And, he’s undertaking a comprehensive salary and benefits study.

“There are quite a number of things underway that are changing the culture of the organization to one that is inclusive and respectful of all staff voices,” he said. “We’ve already begun the healing process.”

He denied that organizers risked retaliation.

But some workers said ongoing instances of “casual racism and institutional bias” make healing impossible. “These things have not been fixed,” one said.

And, most of of all, they said they worry about how the shortage or misallocation of resources is impacting clients.

“None of us feels proud of the type of patient care we are giving on a daily basis,” one worker said, describing how colleagues sometimes log in after hours to deal with a backlog of hundreds of insurance forms. “Our patients are high need, low income, LGBT, high risk of HIV. They need more care, not less.”