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SAY Sí workers say board of directors is contradicting core values in effort to fight unionization efforts

Kids with their faces painted like skeletons during SAY Si's muertitos fest.
Say Sí
Say Sí
Kids with their faces painted like skeletons during one of SAY Si's Muertitos fests.

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Workers at SAY Sí, an afterschool arts nonprofit, formally launched an effort to unionize in early October.

They want improved wages, a pipeline to full-time jobs, increased staffing, and more transparency from the board of directors.

But workers said the organization’s board pushed back by retaining a powerful union-busting law firm.

SAY Sí’s stated mission is to ignite “the creative power of young people as forces of positive change” with a focus on “empower[ing] marginalized communities.”

But Michael Foerster, a visual arts and woodshop instructor at SAY Sí and a union organizer, said the board countered those social justice values by retaining law firm Ogletree Deakins.

“I put together a long list of different efforts that [Ogletree Deakins] had made — not only union busting, but also in efforts like gerrymandering and voter suppression — which is just crazy,” Foerster said.

A spokesperson for SAY Sí did not respond to workers’ denunciation of Ogletree Deakins or the decision to retain the law firm.

In a previous statement on the nonprofit’s website related to the union effort and signed by board president Jason Moran, he said, “SAY Si has worked diligently over the past 30 years to nurture social justice through art, and we remain committed to this mission and to our students.”

Amalia Ortiz, the theater arts director at SAY Sí and a union organizer, wondered how SAY Sí could afford to retain such a large law firm. She claimed that the board neglected to increase wages and staffing.

“And we understand if they wanted to get legal counsel, but we do not understand how they had the resources to employ such an expensive firm, but also a firm that has a track record of working against many of our core values,” she said.

According to IRS 990 forms from fiscal years 2011 to 2020, the nonprofit’s total revenue ranged between $664,762 and $3,194,197, and its net income ranged between -$254,750 and $1,864,988.

A balance sheet from Aug. 31 showed that SAY Sí had $5,881,355.35 in total liabilities and equity. Of that, $198,646.25 was in the nonprofit’s bank accounts. The majority of the organization’s funding came from private foundations and public dollars.

Information from SAY Si's 2020 IRS 990 form that includes total revenue of $1,803,569.
ProPublica Nonprofit Explorer
Information from SAY Si's 2020 IRS 990 form.

Ortiz said she and her co-workers were surprised SAY Sí was deciding to fight against workers’ desire to unionize.

“I’ve been shocked every step of the way,” Ortiz said. “There are other social justice organizations, such as RAICES and MOVE Texas that unionized, and because they are social justice organizations, their board voluntarily recognized them. I think we were all really blindly accepting that our board was going to live up to their mission.”

In a statement, a SAY Sí spokesperson denied the board was against the union.

“From the beginning of the process, the board has supported eligible employees to unionize and has even extended voluntary recognition of thirteen staff positions. Since staff declined that recognition, at this point we are simply waiting for the NLRB to make the determination on which positions are legally eligible to participate in the election.”

Foerster said that would mean leaving out over a dozen other workers who they are trying to include in the bargaining unit. He said the board’s claim that studio directors, the operations manager, and the development director are management — and therefore ineligible to be part of a union — was false.

“We had a week-long hearing where we presented literally a mountain of evidence against that,” he said.

Ortiz said the board also tried to exclude a group of workers in the Working Artists & Mentors (WAM) Middle School Program who they labeled as “temporary” because they’re high school students. She said they were anything but temporary.

“Right now we have a WAM mentor that began when she was a freshman and has the possibility of working all the way through their senior year, and four years hardly seems temporary for us,” she said. “There’s no end date on the application when they apply, and then we’ve had quite a few of our WAM mentors go on from being high school mentors that continue onto college here in town that we continue to employ.”

She said SAY Sí currently employs three college-age WAM Program mentors.

The National Labor Relations Board building in downtown Washington.
Jon Elswick
The National Labor Relations Board building in downtown Washington.

Because SAY Sí’s board is contesting who is eligible for the bargaining unit, there will be a NLRB hearing on Dec. 7 that would likely push an eventual NLRB union election into January.

Ortiz also said that the board had made it increasingly difficult for workers to attend board meetings by changing locations and not informing workers where meetings were being held.

“The very last board meeting, I had to call and question and question and question … and so I looked into where it was, went to the building, knocked on the door because it was locked, and continued knocking until I was allowed in,” Ortiz said.

She said it was another example of the board’s efforts to avoid transparency.

“It seems at every turn, our board is fighting transparency,” she said. “And that’s one of the things that bothers us the most, is if we’re a social justice organization and everything’s on the up and up, why are they fighting so hard [not] to answer questions and to be transparent?”

The board’s spokesperson didn’t respond to claims that workers were being kept from board meetings, but said board members had the best interests of the community in mind as they search for a new executive director.

“The board consists of empathetic leaders that treat others with respect and advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusiveness which is a guiding factor in the search process,” the statement said. “SAY Si will continue to provide safe spaces for young people to develop their voices and apply themselves toward impacting the community."

Ortiz said as long as the board stands against the union, mention of equity is just talk.

“These are members of the community stepping up, asking for equity, and not only did they not recognize our union, but they went out and hired the second-largest union-busting law firm in the country,” she said.

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