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Photo Credit: AFSCME Council 31

UCAN Workers Win a Union

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By AFSCME Council 31 Worth the Fight Workers' Rights

Nearly 200 employees at UCAN, a youth services agency in Chicago, won their union election when the ballots were tallied on March 20 after an intensive anti-union campaign waged by their employer. They fought for a better future for themselves and for the youth they serve everyday – and they won.

“Congratulations to the newest members of our union on their hard-fought victory,” said AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch. “While seeking to form a union, UCAN employees were met with fierce resistance from their employer, but they refused to quit until they won the right to a voice on the job. Welcome to AFSCME!”

UCAN employees started talking about forming a union many months ago. The workers knew that the problems they faced on the job were not sustainable if UCAN wanted a high-quality, dedicated workforce and positive outcomes for the at-risk youth they sought to help. So the workers decided to reach out to AFSCME.

“I’m relieved, and excited for what’s to come ahead,” said Lila Couloute, a program support specialist who has worked at UCAN for eight years. “I really appreciate my co-workers. They work hard but they aren’t supported and don’t get the recognition they deserve. That’s why I wanted to keep pushing for this union. We deserve more. We deserve better pay, more support, and to be heard.”

“It’s a great feeling,” said Crystal Gardner of the victory. She’s a case manager at UCAN. “I’m so proud to be a part of this moment.”

Crystal Gardner from UCAN speaks
Pictured: Crystal Gardner. Photo Credit: AFSCME Council 31

Retaliation for Organizing

UCAN management waged an intense and well-funded anti-union campaign against their employees to prevent them from winning a union. Employees at UCAN are paid an average of $12 an hour, yet this agency hired a union busting attorney who was paid thousands of dollars to push employees to vote No.

“It took real heart for these workers to stick together and vote yes for a union," said Council 31 Organizing Director Abbey Davis. "It was never just about them. It was about a better UCAN and a better future for the youth. Their victory is a testament to their courage and dedication.”

Gardner, who has worked at UCAN for nearly three years, said she stayed motivated by knowing her rights and wanting to help her co-workers know their rights too—and stand up for them. She leaned on her mom and AFSCME organizers for support during the last few challenging months.

“It’s been tough,” Gardner said. “Now I feel like a weight has been lifted off of my chest and my shoulders. Now I can come back to work and focus on my job, not whether I’m going to have a job. Now we can have a voice.”

Crossing the Finish Line

Community support was critical to the workers’ ability to fight off anti-union aggression by management. United Church of Christ, ARISE Chicago and the Leadership Network all called on UCAN to respect the workers' rights to form a union.

“If it wasn’t for the community pressure, UCAN’s anti-worker campaign would have been even worse,” said Council 31 Organizer Jenny Marquis. “They stood with the workers and that made a huge difference.”

Now these newest members of AFSCME will begin the process of negotiating their first union contract. They will determine priorities for negotiations and elect representatives to the bargaining committee. They have voted YES to make a real change at UCAN and now they can work on winning the contract they deserve.

“We see the power in numbers,” Couloute said. “It wasn’t just one person. We all came together, stood strong and united, and got this win. Now we can move forward and we’ll finally have a voice. We can focus more on the clients knowing that our needs are met behind the scenes.”

Learn More

Watch AFSCME International President Lee Saunders’ video to UCAN employees urging them to form a union with AFSCME Council 31.

Watch AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Elissa McBride’s interview with UCAN employee Crystal Gardner.