Three individuals posing in front of LightHouse.
Employees celebrate in front of LightHouse's San Francisco headquarters at 1155 Market Street. Image courtesy of the union’s organizing committee.

By a 50-22 vote, workers at the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired voted overwhelmingly to form a union, organizers said today, marking the formation of perhaps California’s first union serving visually impaired workers. 

The union will represent about 90 workers from the LightHouse’s five Northern California locations, about half of whom are either blind or visually impaired, according to the union.

“Unionizing will allow us to have a collective voice in advocating for the security and protection of this asset, so that we may better serve the blind community,” said Divina Carlson, a visually impaired Braille instructor who’s worked at LightHouse for 30 years. “The LightHouse staff is the best asset of the agency.”

Headquartered in San Francisco since 1902, LightHouse is one of North America’s premier nonprofits dedicated to providing services and advocacy for blind people.

“While I must honestly express that I believe this may not be the optimal path for our agency,” wrote LightHouse CEO Sharon Giovinazzo in an all-staff email after the results were announced, “I want to assure you that our leadership, including the board of directors, is committed to working cooperatively throughout the contract negotiation process. We recognize the importance of open dialogue, collaboration, and ensuring that your voices are heard.”

The year-long organizing effort first went public in early September, when a group of representatives from the would-be guild, LightHouse United, sent a letter to Giovinazzo requesting recognition. In the letter, workers cited the need for stable jobs, better raises and “open communication” as some of the reasons for unionizing.

After management at the LightHouse refused to voluntarily recognize the nascent union, workers took the alternative option and conducted a formal union election in October, hoping to win a majority. They voted over the last few weeks, and results were announced today.

The union will be affiliated with the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 29, which also represent workers at nonprofits including GLIDE, Compass and the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank.

For a union with a substantial number of blind, visually impaired, and also deaf-blind employees, the journey to today’s victory has not been easy, workers said. 

All the materials for the organizing committee, at least half of whose members are visually impaired, for example, had to be compatible with a screen reader. So did the materials for all staffers — workers took the tools usually used on behalf of clients and turned them inward, making sure every piece of information was accessible to everyone. 

The organizers also had to advocate for more accessible ballots. At their advocacy, the National Labor Relations Board provided special ballots with braille instructions and a large print format, according to Sarah Holtz, an OPEIU Local 29 organizer.

LightHouse United said it hopes to wrap up contract negotiations within the next six months.

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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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