Workers at Kaleidoscope Youth Center set to unionize

‘It’s chipping away at the misconceptions and misnomers that only certain people can unionize, or only people in horrific working conditions need to unionize. It’s like, no, we can all do this.’
Kaleidoscope Youth Center
Kaleidoscope Youth CenterAndy Downing

The coronavirus pandemic has driven a surge in union organizing not seen in this country for decades, leading employees to reevaluate work conditions, their priorities, and the value they bring to a company. 

“For better or worse, 2020 was a huge wake-up call for everybody,” said Mallory Golski, civic engagement and advocacy manager at Kaleidoscope Youth Center (KYC), whose workers in late January announced an intent to unionize. “Through the pandemic, there was this realization, asking, are people being taken care of in their workplace? Do they have what they need when the going gets tough? Are they cared for in those moments? Are their health and wellness cared for? Or are they just another pawn on the board being moved around for the benefit of the organization? And I think that collective reckoning has been helpful.”

The 13 members of the Kaleidoscope Workers Union went public with their intent to unionize on Monday, Jan. 29, releasing a statement in which the staffers said they were “looking forward to negotiating for improved communication, fulfillment and improvement of workers' benefits and the increased accessibility of all Kaleidoscope Youth Center programs and facilities.”

A week later, on Monday, Feb. 5, the KYC Board of Directors voted to voluntarily recognize the union – a move that significantly accelerates the timeline to certification, according to Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT). Since Kaleidoscope is a private entity, the certification process is run through the National Labor Relations Board, and it could only be a matter of weeks between filing and the union being officially recognized. (In the public sector, this timeline typically extends for months – even in those cases where an employer voluntarily recognizes the union.) 

Golski and Hailey Fortson, emergency housing program manager for KYC, said KYC employees started to discuss the idea of forming a union in October, the conversations rooted in ensuring all staff members were receiving promised benefits, as well as in expanding accessibility within KYC facilities for the queer youth served by the organization. “So, for example, making it easier for people who don’t speak English as a first language to feel welcomed in our buildings,” Fortson said.

But the two also said a part of the motivation was a desire to preserve a work environment that both spoke of in generally favorable terms, including employer-offered benefits such as unlimited paid time off. 

“You might be sitting in your current job thinking, ‘Things are pretty great. Why would we ever need to unionize?’” said Golski, who was raised by parents who were both union members. “I’ve even had that thought myself going through the process, asking if it’s really worth it, because things could be so much worse, and we could be working in a sweatshop or whatever. … But I think if you have it good, you want it to continue to stay good. So, why not unionize? Why not ensure you have that power now so in a couple of years if something does come up, you have that union standing behind you. I think it’s chipping away at the misconceptions and misnomers that only certain people can unionize, or only people in horrific working conditions need to unionize. It’s like, no, we can all do this. We all should do this.”

While Golski entered into the process with a built-in admiration for unions, Fortson said she had an instinct to defend unions in conversation but a less-defined view of organizing. “I heard a lot of negative things about unions from friends and family members, and my gut reaction was always to argue with them,” said Fortson, who heard unions attacked as a greedy nuisance that can interfere with a company’s mission. “Historically, I understand how important unions have been, and how beneficial they’ve been in protecting personal and collective rights. I just didn’t have any experience with it, so it felt like something that didn’t apply to me, because I couldn’t make it personal.”

But in the wake of organizing over these last few months, both Golski and Fortson said they feel like a part of the larger, ongoing labor movement unfolding nationwide, which Golski described as a cresting wave. “You want to take advantage of that wave as it’s coming up,” Golski said.

This desire to capitalize on current momentum is felt throughout the movement, according to Cropper, who with OFT has helped advise a growing number of groups who in recent years have announced an intent to unionize, including CCAD faculty members, workers at Pickerington Public Library and teachers at KIPP Columbus, among others.

“We have taken the approach that we’re going to put all of the resources into it that we can,” Cropper said. “This is an opportunity for workers to really see the difference of what comes from having a union. And the more people we have unionized, the more we have potential to impact working conditions for everybody, because it puts pressure on the whole market. This is certainly a point in time when every labor union should be doubling down, searching out leads, following up on leads and putting resources into organizing workers. … Because this moment in time won’t last forever.”

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