LightHouse's San Francisco headquarters at 1155 Market St.
LightHouse's San Francisco headquarters at 1155 Market Street. Photo by Rongcheng Zhang, Sept. 19, 2023.

Management at LightHouse, a nonprofit for the blind and visually impaired, has refused to voluntarily recognize their workers’ nascent union following news earlier this month that the majority of employees had signed union cards.

The nonprofit’s 87 workers will now have to conduct a formal election to demonstrate that they have majority support for the union drive.

“It just really shows that management, [the CEO], the board, they just are so out of touch with staff, with our needs, our wants, desires,” said Sheri Albers, a visually impaired community outreach specialist at LightHouse and a member of the union’s organizing committee. 

Since 1902, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, headquartered in San Francisco, has served as a premier nonprofit that provides training programs, education, and advocacy services to visually impaired residents in California.

The unionization effort went public on Sept. 5 when LightHouse United, the aspirational union, sent a letter to CEO Sharon Giovinazzo, requesting voluntary recognition. Prior to that, 70 percent of eligible workers at all five of LightHouse’s locations across Northern California had signed union-authorization cards.

In an all-staff email yesterday, LightHouse’s CEO said the organization should be “afforded the opportunity to present our perspective on this pivotal matter.”

“We firmly believe that it is imperative for all employees to be fully informed and have a comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand before making such a significant decision,” she wrote. 

Workers who had been optimistic about voluntary recognition are disappointed with the decision. Further, they say LightHouse management misrepresented the workers’ actions in its communications to staff.

On Sept. 8, for example, LightHouse management asked workers for more time to decide on whether to voluntarily recognize the union. The organizing committee granted another week and informed LightHouse management that the organizers would file a petition for a vote, but that if the nonprofit’s management recognized the LightHouse United union, they would withdraw the petition. “That was our way of just getting a jump on it,” said Albers. 

LightHouse management described the same incident differently in their email yesterday. “Given the importance of this issue, we requested an extension of that deadline. However, [the union] went ahead and filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) requesting that LightHouse employees hold an election to consider joining their union.”

It was framed “as though we filed for an election without notifying management, and also that Lighthouse United is this outside entity,” said Albers. 

The unionization efforts stem from workers’ desire for “stable, secure jobs” with a living wage and predictable pay increases, as well as better communication with management. 

Multiple employees voiced their sentiments at a LightHouse board meeting last Thursday. “I would like to change the at-will status that we work under to the just-cause employment status,” said Albers. “I have seen firsthand what being an at-will employee does to a person. It has the potential to destroy a life, if you let it.”

Patti Rose, a 23-year employee at LightHouse, said, “If we have the voice of a union, perhaps we can engage in conversations to make the word ‘team’ meaningful at the Lighthouse.”

The election is expected to be held in October, according to Sarah Holtz, an organizer of the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 29, with which the union will be affiliated.

“We are requesting that management, please, remain neutral and respect the democratic process that we have come up with through this whole period, and just let us do our thing,” said Albers, a member of the organizing committee.

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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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