A nonprofit umbrella group has taken the unusual step of suing the city — over a recently passed law aimed at easing the path to joining a union for staffers at social service organizations.
The Human Services Council, which represents 170 organizations in the city, contends in the lawsuit that the measure, known as Local Law 87, is a “ticking time bomb” that previous top city officials left for Mayor Eric Adams.
The legislation “cedes control over the City of New York’s social services to union leaders, period,” alleges the suit filed by HSC in Manhattan federal court late last month.
The lawsuit seeks to “strike down” the new legislation, arguing it unfairly allows union leaders to decide which nonprofits get city contracts and unfairly blocks social service staffers from striking.
At stake is the future of an estimated 125,000 private workers, among them thousands of social workers, who make far less than their counterparts directly employed by the city. The nonprofit leaders contend the city could easily increase pay for their employees working under municipal contract by adjusting baseline salaries and making yearly cost-of-living adjustments.
The new law requires city human service providers, like United Way and City Harvest, to enter into “labor peace” agreements with unions seeking to represent their employees. The pacts essentially mean that nonprofits won’t hinder possible votes by workers to join a union.
The lawsuit is among the first tests of the Adams administration’s close relationship with District Council 37, part of the Association of Federal, State and Municipal Employees and the city’s largest municipal union. The labor group — an early endorser of Adams’ mayoral campaign — supported the legislation, which was pushed by former City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and signed into law by former Mayor Bill de Blasio.
DC 37 has long attempted to make inroads into the nonprofit sector to increase workers’ pay and the union’s enrollment.
‘Disrupting the Process’
The legal case also puts a spotlight on the longstanding relationship between City Hall and the city’s nonprofit sector. HSC has never sued the city in its 30-year history, according to Michelle Jackson, the group’s executive director.
Many of the organizations it represents fill in service gaps for the city’s most vulnerable, who are not directly covered by municipal agencies and staff. Instead, they are contracted out to private entities to cover those areas of need.
“Local Law 87 places New York’s communities at great risk,” the lawsuit alleges. “It allows union leaders to decide which social service organizations will receive the government funds they need to help those in crisis, and it places the power to cut off critical services into the hands of union officials, beyond the control of the city officials elected to make those decisions.”
Union leaders essentially have “veto power” over city contracts — a violation of the nonprofit groups First Amendment right to freedom of speech, according to the lawsuit. The new legislation also “strips [nonprofit] employers” rights they have under the National Labor Relations Act by giving outsized power to unions, the lawsuit alleges.
Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department, said the case is under review. “We’ll defend the local law in court,” he added.
Nonprofit leaders say they have no objection to making it easier for their staff to unionize and note that roughly half of the sector is already represented by unions.
But they contend the legislation was poorly worded and creates confusion. The only part of the law that is clear, they say, is that providers who are found out of compliance could have their contracts with the city terminated.
“For us this legislation is about disrupting the contracting process and not providing clear guidance for providers,” Jackson said.
Even providers who are already unionized are struggling with how to comply with the law because the paperwork is confusing, she said.
The law went into effect Nov. 16, but the city is asking nonprofits to sign a compliance attestation document for discretionary contracts that predate the law, according to Jackson.
“If the city wants to take actions to raise the salaries and benefits of human services workers, they don’t need a third party to do that,” she said.
DC 37 has said it was “deeply involved” in “drafting” the legislation, the lawsuit notes.
Asked about the legal case, the union’s executive director, Henry Garrido, declined to discuss it, but called nonprofit workers the “backbone of the city” who are “too often treated like an afterthought.”
“They deal with dangerous working conditions daily, understaffing, low pay and poor benefits,” he added in his statement to THE CITY. “If they want to come together to organize for more respect on the job they should be able to do so without fear of retribution.”