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SAY Sí board chair says nonprofit spent $35,000 on firm his staffers claim is a union-buster

Community members sit at tables in a room at the Good Samaritan Community Center listening to SAY Si staff.
Josh Peck
Texas Public Radio
Community members sit at tables in a room at the Good Samaritan Community Center listening to SAY Si staff.

SAY Sí spent roughly $35,000 on the law firm Ogletree Deakins that unionizing workers have called a major union-buster, according to Jason Moran, the board chair for the afterschool arts nonprofit.

Moran said the money spent on the firm came from unused funds that were budgeted for administrative costs in 2022, and the funds’ use did not affect the nonprofit’s programming.

Since learning of Ogletree Deakins’ involvement, SAY Sí staff demanded to know how the nonprofit could afford such a large law firm and where the funds came from.

Workers at SAY Sí formalized their union drive in September, calling for better wages, increased staffing, a pipeline to full-time jobs, and more transparency from the board. They accused their board of union busting, pointing to Ogletree Deakins as one of their main pieces of evidence, and they claimed the firm works contrary to the organization’s stated values.

They also said the firm has assisted companies conduct employee interrogations and captive-audience meetings — when workers are required to sit in meetings held by management where they are given anti-union information — as well as voter suppression efforts.

“I actually also found a really fun quote on [Ogletree Deakins’] website, which states that it ‘pioneers in developing strategies and practices that create positive employee relations to minimize the risk of unionization,’” said Jackson Lundquist, a SAY Sí staff member and alumni, during a community meeting on the West Side on Saturday.

A statement from SAY Sí rejected the accusations of union-busting.

“The presumption that the board is demonstrating animosity towards union formation and engaged in union busting activity is incorrect,” the statement said. “The board strongly believes in labor rights, and the laws that govern the protection of workers.”

A flyer from the SAY Si union about why they're unionizing and how supporters can help.
Josh Peck
Texas Public Radio
A flyer shared by the SAY Si workers.

The staff’s September union drive announcement called on their board to offer them voluntary recognition — when a company or nonprofit chooses to recognize a bargaining unit of its staff following the signed interest of a majority of the staff without a formal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election.

This path to forming a union is less common than NLRB elections, but many staff had expected the board to agree. Other social justice-oriented nonprofits, such as MOVE Texas and RAICES, voluntarily recognized their unions.

But, according to Lundquist, the board declined to recognize all members of the proposed bargaining unit.

“After two weeks, the board came back to us and they told us that they were deciding not to recognize our entire union,” he said.

Instead, the board offered voluntary recognition to slightly more than half of the proposed bargaining unit, arguing that 12 members of the proposed unit should be ineligible either because they were in management roles — staff with hiring and firing power are not allowed to be union members, per federal law — or they were temporary workers who only worked 2-4 hours per week as Working Artist Mentors (WAM) — high schoolers working with younger students.

The SAY Sí staff rejected both arguments and said none of their staff have hiring or firing power and that WAM members often work for four years or longer.

The NLRB will determine in the next several weeks who is eligible for the unit, and that decision will be followed by an NLRB election, which will likely be held in January. The SAY Sí board has said they will abide by whatever decision the NLRB makes, and that they favor the democratic process of an NLRB election.

Jacob Aronowitz, a union representative from United Professional Organizers, which would represent the staff if their union is certified, cast doubt on the board’s commitment to democratic ideals during the Saturday meeting.

“That’s a common line that employers will throw out there: ‘oh we’re just declining your voluntary recognition because we just love democracy so much, we just want all the workers to be able to vote,’” Aronowitz said. “We know this is a bold-faced lie. How do we know it’s a lie? Because the very next legal maneuver that management of SAY Sí undertook was to attempt to disqualify essentially half of the unit.”

Workers are still trying to push the board to voluntarily recognize all of them before the election to get to the bargaining process faster.

That effort is the primary reason why SAY Sí staff held the Saturday West Side meeting. Workers asked community members to contact board members to demand they recognize every worker as a member of the union. Staff also asked supporters to contact city council members and the mayor to demand that no tax dollars go to union-busting efforts; much of SAY Sí’s funding comes from city dollars.

District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo has been an outspoken supporter of the SAY Sí union effort and attended the Saturday meeting which took place in her district. District 2 and District 3 council members Jalen McKee-Rodriguez and Phyllis Viagran have also voiced their support for the workers, according to a SAY Sí union flyer.

Jacob Aronowitz speaking to community members about the SAY Si worker effort.
Josh Peck
Texas Public Radio
Jacob Aronowitz, the union representative from the United Professional Organizers, speaking at the Saturday community meeting.

Aronowitz said the board’s refusal to voluntarily recognize the workers as a union was damaging the nonprofit’s reputation. “They seem to be losing a lot of the goodwill and the reputation that they, frankly, rightly earned over years,” he said.

He added that the staff is in communication with city council members to see if they could uncover whether public dollars are being handled improperly.

During the community meeting, staff also brought up one of the things they have been most concerned about, even before the formal union process began — an entity created by SAY Sí called Vamos aBrazos.

Vamos aBrazos is an entity that was formed to receive new market tax credits, a type of tax benefit for the nonprofit. But workers say the way money moves between SAY Sí and Vamos aBrazos is opaque and potentially ripe for abuse, and that the board has refused to explain it.

Aronowitz said he can only think of one reason why the board would be fighting a bargaining unit of 30 people at a small arts nonprofit like SAY Sí, though he conceded he had no direct evidence.

“Why are they fighting this small nonprofit bargaining unit so hard?” he asked. “I think they’re trying to cover up some sort of deep malfeasance or wrongdoing, fraud or embezzlement, having to do with Vamos aBrazos.”

Aronowitz said that because the union bargaining process often leads to the access of internal financial information, that could explain why the board is fighting the workers.

Moran said in a statement that internal investigations had found no evidence of financial impropriety, and an external accounting firm was conducting an audit. He also said SAY Sí’s financial statements are already public.

“With regards to the allegations of financial impropriety the board has repeatedly asked staff for information since the departure of the co-executive directors in August,” Moran explained. “Our own investigations have not surfaced any evidence. An external accounting firm was brought in last week to begin reconciliation of our financials which the current employee has fallen behind on.”

Moran also said that while the new market tax credit that Vamos aBrazos was created for is very complex and can be easily misunderstood, other local nonprofits, like the San Antonio Food Bank and the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, also use the tax credits.

Melina Espiritu-Azocar and Camryn Blackmon speaking to community members during the West Side meeting.
Josh Peck
Texas Public Radio
Melina Espiritu-Azocar (center left) and Camryn Blackmon (center) speaking to community members during the West Side meeting.

Melina Espiritu-Azocar, a parent of a SAY Sí student, spoke at the West Side meeting and told community members to share what’s going on with SAY Sí as much as they can.

“Please make sure that you share what’s going on, because the stories are really important, what’s happening matters, and we need to make sure that we’re elevating the voices of the employees, and letting folks know what’s happening here at SAY Sí,” she said.

Camryn Blackmon, a SAY Sí alumni, spoke through tears at the meeting about what the arts program meant to her.

“I know a lot of alumni can hear it and agree with me,” she said. “We can all go to SAY Sí at any time and feel welcomed, feel safe, inspired, empowered. And our staff needs the same thing that they’ve given to us for so many years.”

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