Compass Family Services
Compass Family Services workers celebrate on union election day. Photo courtesy of Better Compass for All

More than 100 years after its founding, workers at Compass Family Services, a nonprofit helping the homeless, have scored a landmark victory: They can finally have a union.

“I’m so proud that we’ve come to this point that we’ve really organized together, and that we’re continuing to do so,” said Juliana Dunn, a member of the union organizing committee. “We felt, for far too long, that staff had really felt disempowered. … We really need to come together to advocate for ourselves in a way that can change power dynamics and can shift how we are treated in the workplace.”

Compass Family Services has not yet replied to Mission Local’s request for comments in multiple emails. 

Founded in 1914, Compass Family Services helps homeless families in San Francisco find shelter and sources of income, and this year alone it has helped more than 6,500 parents and children. Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, its union election was won with 75 percent support (63 yes, 21 no). The nascent union, Better Compass for All, has joined the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 29, and is currently awaiting certification from the National Labor Relations Board. Once launched, Compass Family Services will be the latest in a wave of local nonprofits forming unions.

The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank was one of the first large local nonprofits to unionize, in 2019. Others have followed, including LYRIC Center for LGBTQQ Youth in 2020, and Glide Foundation, which just won its union election on Nov. 10. 

Compass Family Services workers celebrate on union election day. Photo courtesy of Better Compass for All.

The new union will consist of approximately 100 non-management and supervisory employees out of approximately 140 employees at Compass, according to Andom Kahsay, an organizer at OPEIU who also helped with Glide Foundation’s organizing efforts.

Dunn said the organizing started in the summer of 2021, with tensions surrounding the rollback of remote working. Workers were frustrated with the top-down nature of the process. About 65 of them co-signed a letter hoping to have a dialogue with the leadership team, but, according to Dunn, all they got was “absolute radio silence.” Some arrangements were later relaxed, but the extent of the changes fell far short of workers’ expectations.

Soon, the discontent spread to issues that already angered many Compass workers, mostly monetary issues: Wages, health insurance and inadequate retirement savings. Some of them had been displaced by the exorbitant rents in San Francisco and become “super commuters,” coming to work every day from Hayward or further afield. 

The situation was particularly severe for those who have families. “Childcare is a huge issue, in that that’s actually something that we help our clients with, connecting them to childcare subsidies, but most of us are just out of the range of being eligible for those subsidies. We make just a little bit too much,” said Dunn.

Melani Gomez, 35, once  a Compass client, became a case manager for Compass Family Resource Center 15 months ago. Even with the change in position, she and her daughter are still strapped for cash. The wage she receives, $936.75 every week ($24.98 per hour and 37.5 hours per week), disqualifies her from food stamps, yet “food is getting expensive, vegetables are getting super high,” she said. 

She hopes the new union will bring her a small raise and, probably, better dental insurance. “I can’t even afford going to a dentist, because I don’t even make enough to pay for my dentist.”

That way, she can continue her work at Compass; “I like helping the people and I like giving back because Compass is really helpful with families. But when I got into work with them, I saw the other side of the coin, they don’t help their own families, our workers.”

Those workers began to seek longer-term measures to negotiate with their employers, visiting each other’s offices, forming an organizing committee and meeting on a weekly basis. 

Compass Family Services
Compass Family Services workers celebrate on union election day. Photo courtesy of Better Compass for All

In October, leaders at Compass declined to voluntarily recognize the Better Compass for All union, and asked them to go through a formal union election procedure. “We were rather disappointed with our employer. But not entirely surprised. They’ve been kind of fighting us the whole way since we went public,” said Dunn.

Both the union and the employer have seven business days after the announcement of the election result to file objections. If everything goes well, by either this Friday or next Monday, the National Labor Relations Board will certify the union.

In the meantime, organizers inside and outside Compass are preparing a survey that aims to provide a clear picture of the issues union members are most eager to address. The survey will be used to determine their agenda when they sit down to negotiate with Compass.

“Living wage is the main concern,” said Kahsay, and a half-percent raise is hardly helpful. “Unfortunately, the nonprofit workers who are like the backbone of the society have been for far too long neglected, overseen, overlooked and unrecognized by the community.”

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REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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