Staff at St. Paul AIDS service organization vote to unionize

Rainbow Health workers (L to R) Andrea Hampel, Mikhail Koha Dei-Anang, Arabella Childers, Zoe Geisen and Aamina Mohamed, await results of the vote tally in their union election.

Workers at Rainbow Health have unionized after an overwhelming majority of the St. Paul-based nonprofit’s 60-person staff voted to join SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa last month.

The new union includes workers who provide HIV education and outreach, housing-access support, case management, behavioral-health services, benefits counseling and other support to clients, advancing Rainbow Health’s goal of ending HIV in Minnesota.

The National Labor Relations Board counted votes in the mail-in election March 30, and 95% of workers who cast ballots voted in favor of the union.

Like other nonprofit workers who have driven an uptick in union organizing in that sector over the last three years, Rainbow Health workers said they want their employer to be more transparent when it comes to decisions that affect their jobs.

“Most of our demands don’t have to do with our wages, but transparency overall,” said Tommy Lavelle, a community health advocate at Rainbow Health since May 2021. “There needs to be some kind of accountability, some kind of responsibility taken for how people have been treated.”

Zoe Geisen, a benefits counselor, said one of workers’ top demands is for at least two staff members to serve as liaisons to Rainbow Health’s board of directors.

“We have not always been included in or had timely information about important decisions that affect our programs,” said Geisen, in her fourth year with the organization. “By having our staff represented on the board of directors, we can more effectively advocate for our programs and clients.”

Other priorities workers hope to bring into contract negotiations include greater safety and stability for both staff and clients, and safeguards ensuring equity and respect. Nikki LeClaire, a medical case manager, said the union’s goals “are grounded in our dedication and responsibility to our clients and the communities we serve.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges for frontline staff at the AIDS service organization, at a time when HIV cases are on the rise in Minnesota, according to the state Department of Health.

But Rainbow Health management has made it “more difficult for us to do the work,” said Naomi Kyndberg, a care linkage specialist with 6 years of experience in the organization. She cited recent decisions that, she believes, “harm our communities, especially our BIPOC communities.”

“I am fighting for our union so our leaders that work with the communities that we serve have a say in the work that we do,” Kyndberg said. “I am fighting for our union so that we can heal the harm caused to us and to our communities through the decisions our CEO and board members have made. I am fighting for our union to have a voice.”

Racial equity was a key driver of the organizing effort, Lavelle agreed.

“It’s been a really hard time for people of color at Rainbow Health, and we’re trying to turn that around,” he said. “It goes back to transparency. When we started talking about what we were getting paid, that was healing for people, and that’s a big part of why we formed this union – to get transparency for our programs, our funding, our own wages.”

After early discussions about forming a union last year, Rainbow Health workers moved to speed up the process, fearing retaliation from CEO Jeremy Hanson Willis, Lavelle said.

In February, after gathering signed union cards from a majority of staff members, workers delivered a letter to Willis and the board of directors asking for voluntary recognition of their union. After their request was denied, workers petitioned the NLRB for a union election.

Lavelle said board members would be better served if frontline staff had an opportunity to participate in the process of hiring senior managers.

“Rainbow Health has a history of having short-term CEOs that are not good, so we’re trying to figure out how we can get power over that process and stop the cycle of what’s been going on,” Lavelle said. “There’s an HIV outbreak in Minneapolis and Duluth right now. There’s real work to do. We don’t have time to be messing around.”

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