Workers with LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, one of the state’s premier nonprofits for those who are blind, announced a union drive today and are formally requesting that the nonprofit’s management recognize their would-be guild.
Calling themselves LightHouse United, the aspirational union has received the support of workers in all five of LightHouse’s locations across Northern California, with 61 out of 87 eligible workers signing union authorization cards, a support rate of 70 percent.
If it wins recognition, LightHouse United would be the first union serving visually impaired workers in the Bay Area — and probably the first in the state, according to workers.
“I’d be very surprised if we’re not the very first in California,” said Frank Welte, a 12-year employee of LightHouse. Legally blind himself, Welte converts printed material into Braille and creates tactile graphics, such as maps and art pieces.
LightHouse’s management, which received a letter from workers Tuesday morning, said it was considering their request for recognition.
“There are a lot of legal and organizational issues triggered by their request,” wrote W. Brandon Cox, LightHouse’s chief operating officer, in a statement. “We intend to carefully consider this request and will respond in due time. We respect our employees’ right to unionize. Our goal is to determine what is in the best interests of our organization.”
In their letter, workers asked LightHouse management to respond to their request by Friday at 5 p.m.
Founded in 1902, LightHouse has been offering training programs, education, and advocacy services for visually impaired residents in California ever since. Over the past year, staff across departments began organizing, according to Welte, and decided to form a union to improve staff decision-making, improve communication with management, and increase pay.
Jeff Carlson, a social worker at LightHouse, said the union would help staff members speak to management about workplace issues. “I think that LightHouse United will be a vehicle to establish a more unified, equitable and representative communication between staff and management,” he said.
In the workers’ letter to management, LightHouse United cited a need for “stable, secure jobs” with a “Bay Area living wage, and yearly cost-of-living and merit raises.” The letter, sent to LightHouse CEO Sharon Giovinazzo, also cited a need for “open communication” at the nonprofit and “giving every staff member a seat at the table.”
“Today, we reflect upon the words of Helen Keller, who wrote, ‘Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much,’” the letter continued. LightHouse United would be organized under the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 29.
Welte, for his part, said he has witnessed colleagues let go in a cloud of secrecy, not knowing why they were fired. “If you’re not sitting at the table, then you’re on the menu,” he said.
Organizing a union with “a very substantial number” of blind and visually impaired employees — and even some who are deaf-blind — presented unique challenges, according to Welte, who’s a member of the organizing committee. At least half the organizing committee members are visually impaired and had to ensure all materials were compatible with a screen reader, for example, including the union cards signed last week. Workers took the tools usually used on behalf of clients and turned them inward, using workarounds for phone communication, meetings, and developing visual materials that worked for all staffers.
Glitches were inevitable: The first batch of union cards sent to workers used a different platform than the one LightHouse staff had been using, and was therefore not accessible; they switched to another platform.
“This is the first union I’ve been involved with, in terms of organizing, and it was a long process,” said Divina Carlson, visually impaired, a Braille instructor who’s worked at LightHouse for 30 years. “We’re ready to move on to the next chapter of this process.”
If LightHouse chooses to voluntarily recognize the union, the National Labor Relations Board will certify the union after counting signed union cards to ensure a majority of eligible workers have stated their support.
Lighthouse United would join nonprofits including GLIDE, Compass, and San Francisco-Marin Food Bank as part of the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 29, according to Sarah Holtz, an OPEIU Local 29 organizer.
If management does not recognize the union, an election could be held within a month, with an NLRB officer present to ensure that the process is accessible for the visually impaired workers. The NLRB would also hire an outside agency to make Braille and large print for voting ballots.
“We have a faith that [the LightHouse CEO] will accept our voluntary recognition letter and cross our fingers,” said Carlson. “Otherwise, we’re ready to vote.”