Staff at New Avenues for Youth, a Portland nonprofit focused on addressing youth homelessness, announced a plan to unionize Tuesday. According to workers, 80 percent of the estimated 130 employees eligible to join the union have expressed support of the labor movement. 

More than twenty workers marched to the office of New Avenues’ Director Sean Suib Tuesday afternoon to delver a letter announcing their intent to unionize.

“We asked for voluntary recognition,” said Cory, one of the New Avenues employees leading the union campaign. “We hope they see the writing on the wall that this is an inevitability.”

"Cory" is a pseudonym for the workers' actual name. None of the staff interviewed for this story wanted their names published out of fear of retaliation from New Avenues management.

Cory said Suib asked for time to read over the letter and speak with others in leadership. He promised a response by the end of the week. If management chooses not to voluntarily recognize the union, staff will file paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a formal vote—a process that will mandate recognition from New Avenues. 

In an email to the Mercury Tuesday night, Suib wrote that leadership is still processing the request.

"We are still examining the concerns raised by New Avenues staff and will respond in a timely and thoughtful manner," wrote Suib.

Cory said staff began organizing in May, following a period of high worker turnover at New Avenues. Cory said that trend was fueled by seemingly arbitrary firings and staff burnout exacerbated by low wages and poor benefits. 

At $20 an hour for service providers, workers say New Avenues wages are the lowest out of all other nonprofits that cater to homeless youth in Portland, including Outside In, Janus Youth, and NAYA. One worker, Matt, said that the current time-off allowances also don’t cut it in their line of work. 

“The basic time-off package we have is inadequate for the amount of emotional intensity that our programs require,” said Matt. “Imagine a worker who is talking a client out of suicide one day, and then is expected to pick up and go to work the next day. It’s important we get robust time off.”

Workers also expressed their interest in pressing management to expand its board, which is largely made up of real estate heads and corporate leaders, to include seats for both youth and New Avenues staff. 
New Avenues workers decided to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). While some workers initially wanted to create an independent union, similar to what workers at New Seasons and Burgerville have done, they realized the extra commitment could strain already burnt-out employees. 

“People don’t have a ton of emotional capacity to do work-related things outside of work,” said Cory. 

This is the fourth attempt New Avenues staff have made to unionize its staff. 

“This is the farthest we’ve ever gotten,” said Bryce, who has worked for New Avenues for over a decade. “What’s changed is that we’re willing to take risks this time, like asking for support from staff that may tell leadership [about the union drive]."

Management was aware of the labor organizing prior to Tuesday’s meeting, workers say. Last month, leadership allegedly called a mandatory meeting with lower-level management to discuss the organization’s approach to the movement.

A challenge, Cory noted, is that several staff who signed on in support of the union earlier this year have either been laid off or quit in frustration with the job. Four members of New Avenues’ main union organizing committee have been laid off since the summer, according to Cory. 

“We view those firings as retaliatory,” said Bryce.

New Avenues director Suib says the nonprofit hasn't laid off staff since March 2020.

Organizers believe the current political climate makes their announcement more salient than ever. Matt pointed to the general attitude of support for labor organizing that has grown both nationally and locally in recent years. He also acknowledged that staff have been unhappy with leadership’s decision not to oppose the recent Portland City Council proposal to ban street camping, while also creating six large outdoor encampments to force homeless people into. 

“There was no acknowledgement about the hundreds of kids this will affect,” Matt said. “We want staff to be involved in this conversation, and unionizing will help make that happen.”