Howard Brown Health workers poised for three-day strike after the holidays

Howard Brown Health Workers United announced the January 3-5 strike Friday evening after resounding support in a vote from the union’s members.

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Howard Brown Health, located at 4025 N. Sheridan Rd. in the Buena Park neighborhood, is seen in this photo, Thursday afternoon, Dec. 9, 2021.

Howard Brown Health, located at 4025 N. Sheridan Rd. in the Buena Park neighborhood, is seen in this photo, Thursday afternoon, Dec. 9, 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Nearly a month after employees at Howard Brown Health held a rally against proposed staffing cuts, unionized workers at the LGBTQ+ focused Chicago health care facilities say they’re ready to stage a three-day strike in early January.

In a Friday Instagram post, Howard Brown Health Workers United and the Illinois Nurses Association announced their members will walk off the job Jan. 3-5 over what they say are Howard Brown’s violations of the National Labor Relations Act, including “bargaining in bad faith.”

The groups claim the strike will bring more than 440 employees across 11 city locations — including nurses, specialists and even those at Brown Elephant thrift stores — onto the picket line after the holidays.

A strike vote was held in mid-December, and among 80% of union members who turned in ballots, 92% were in favor of the strike, according to the Howard Brown employees’ union.

The strike was then authorized for Jan. 3, the day Howard Brown Health plans to lay off 61 union members across 11 locations, according to Margo Gislain, the lead organizer with the Illinois Nurses Association’s Howard Brown Health Unit.

The cuts include all drug abuse case managers at South Side locations, members of the gender-affirming care team for youth and nearly all of the In Power team, which is dedicated to helping survivors of sexual assault and harassment navigate health care and legal systems.

Howard Brown Health has stated the layoffs are needed to bridge an estimated $12 million budget gap, which was attributed to changes in pharmaceutical legislation and the end of some COVID-19 assistance programs.

Representatives for Howard Brown Health didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Saturday.

Union leaders say they’ve seen no evidence of such dire financial straits.

“What is happening does not make sense with what their proposal is for this new facility,” Gislain said, referring to a $44 million Lake View facility currently under construction. “It’s very weird to cut staff by 60 and then immediately staff back up again in September.”

In March 2022, Howard Brown Health broke ground on that facility to replace one of its oldest offices, which closed in 2020. The initial plans had been set to include a staff of 100 by the 2023 opening, which would nearly double over time to accommodate dental offerings and an expansion of behavioral health care services, representatives for Howard Brown Health said when construction started.

Union members say they’ve even seen job postings for positions that were on the layoff list.

A Friday night release from the two unions accused the health care organization of 19 total violations of the National Labor Relations Act, one of which they said was “bargaining in bad faith,” which Gislain says is shown in the offers the union received.

She said the first day of bargaining was opened by management with a “voluntary separation proposal” which 112 members were given five days to accept. When no offer was made, management switched to 61 “involuntary separations” with layoffs going into effect Jan. 3.

Gislain called it a “downgrade” in offers which she believes fits the “bad faith” definition set by the NLRA.

Julian Modugno — an event planner at Howard Brown Health and union bargaining board member who is on the layoff list — said it has been “hard to take the offers seriously” because of inconsistencies in communication from management.

“In November I’d been told by the vice president of my department that I had a bright future at the organization,” Modugno, 37, said. “To find out 10 days later that they were trying to lay me off was confusing.”

He also described working on the grand opening of the new Lake View facility as “bittersweet” seeing as he isn’t sure he will still have a job with Howard Brown by then.

“An ongoing issue at Howard Brown is that so much of their language is about the idea of serving the queer community of Chicago,” Modugno said. “What Howard Brown says and what Howard Brown does doesn’t often line up with each other… It’s very difficult to understand how laying off a bunch of queer people ties into the idea of LGBTQ liberation.”

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