Capital Roots workers demand money and respect, not necessarily in that order

Union organizers protest outside the office of Capital Roots in Troy on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022.

Union organizers protest outside the office of Capital Roots in Troy on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022.

TROY — Union members took their lunch break on a humid corner of River Street Friday, calling out their employer with a bullhorn and inflating that classic fixture of the labor picket, the giant money-grabbing pig.

The difference this time was that the target of their ire is a nonprofit — Capital Roots, a community organization whose longrunning mission is to fight poor nutrition in Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga and Schenectady counties. 

The pig (and its friend the inflatable money-grabbing fat cat) were there not because Capital Roots is making money hand over fist, but because it’s constructing a building next door with nonunion labor.

Labor representation is less common in the nonprofit workforce than in the for-profit sector. Doubly uncommon: Capital Roots voluntarily accepted the decision by about 20 of its employees, and recognized them as a unit of SEIU Local 200United. Many employers force the matter to an employee vote, and the process sometimes devolves into an angry exchange.

Capital Roots announced the decision July 5, saying it reflected the organization’s mission and the service goals it shares with its employees. In their own announcement July 5, union organizers hailed the decision with a mix of triumph and optimism.

Fast forward a month to Aug. 5:

Capital Roots has fired one of the lead organizers and another employee who was a strong (if less vocal) advocate for unionization, and whatever tentative good will expressed by the two sides has evaporated. The union has filed 15 unfair labor practice complaints.

The two ex-employees joined with some of their former colleagues and with supporters outside Capital Roots’ headquarters, spilling off the sidewalks on all four corners of Jay and River streets until police shooed them back up the curb.

Cody Bloomfield, who was the volunteer coordinator for Capital Roots until this week, said she was fired without explanation or cause.

She said when she questioned instructions to go to a remote site for a meeting Tuesday, CEO Amy Klein told her she was insubordinate, told her to go home, and then threatened to have her arrested for trespassing when she requested a sitdown with management and her union representative. Bloomfield said Capital Roots fired her the next day via email.

“I have been a stellar employee at Capital Roots, I have fantastic reviews,” she said. “There are many volunteers here today who are here supporting me because they’re sad to see me go, because I facilitated their volunteership.”

She added: “I’ve definitely been a vocal supporter, a face of this union organization effort. … I’ve been very vocal within the building as well. So I believe I’ve been absolutely targeted.”

Bloomfield said she remains committed to both roles: The job she did for Capital Roots and the organization effort for its employees.

“I would love to be reinstated, what we’re doing here is really important work and I loved being part of the unionization effort. I’d love to see it through.”

Greg Campbell-Cohen said he was sacked soon after he reported misconduct by Klein.

“Then I reported more suspected misconduct, and the next workday I was asked to work from home. After a week of that I was terminated for a bunch of things that I’ve never even gotten informal warnings about. It was transparently retaliatory, and it was all because of support for the union and calling attention to issues in the workplace,” he said.

“I was a well-known supporter of unions even before there was a push in the workplace but I tried to keep my support for it completely quiet until I signed my union card and had an attorney look over my job description and agree that yes, you are bargaining-unit eligible. But I would say I was one of the more quiet supporters.”

Retaliatory firing is illegal under federal labor law. But baristas trying to organize Starbucks shops say it happens there, and order pickers trying to organize Amazon warehouses say it happens there. Both companies deny it.

Likewise, Capital Roots denies the accusations lobbed at it Friday. It said via email:

“The Board of Directors’ decision to voluntarily recognize a union of Capital Roots employees remains the policy and intention of the Board and management of Capital Roots. Sadly, we are aware of many factually inaccurate and defamatory allegations being made against CEO Amy Klein and her management team by certain union supporters. We categorically deny them.

“Management has not acted illegally, and its actions, taken in support of the management of the organization during the formation of this new relationship, have been guided by the organization’s principles, our rules of workplace conduct, and law. They have nevertheless been manipulated and contorted into false assertions of unfair practices and retaliation. Those assertions are not true.”

Capital Roots began in Troy in 1972 as Capital District Community Gardens. Today it supports 55 community gardens across the region and a variety of general and specialized nutrition programs including the Veggie Mobile and Squash Hunger. Klein has been CEO for 25 years.

Sean Collins, an organizer with SEIU Local 200United, said wages aren’t the main factor behind this organization drive.

“They’re not asking for executive salaries, and no one would claim that Amy is out here making big money, that’s not the issue,” he said. “It’s about the culture of the organization internally.”

Campbell-Cohen said: “We understand there’s not that much money to work with. We’re talking about really basic stuff — why don’t we have direct deposit? We don’t have an HR manager. It’s about respect more than wages.”

Bloomfield said: “A lot of it is a seat at the table … there’s no transparency in this organization.”

Two other Capital Region nonprofits have seen labor campaigns this year: A group of workers at Northeast Parent and Child Society in Schenectady voted to join the Civil Service Employees Association in May and a group at Joseph’s House in Troy have petitioned to be represented by SEIU Local 200United.

Collins said nonprofit employees are a relative newcomer to organized labor. 

“I think the reason behind nonprofits workers organizing is, these organizations have these mission statements and these values that they espouse, but then when it comes down to the actual working conditions they’re totally incongruent,” he said.

Nonprofits could pay better wages, Collins believes. But even if they’re never as good as in the for-profit sector, the financial limitations on nonprofits don’t preclude them from fostering an internal culture of respect, where work rules are agreed-upon rather than imposed, he said.

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