Staffers at a progressive after-school arts program in San Antonio are seeking to unionize, but it’s not exactly about pay or benefits.

A majority of staff members have asked the nonprofit organization’s board to recognize their right to organize under the umbrella of the United Professional Organizers, a labor union representing campaign workers and organizers, but the board wants a vote held on the matter, a move that could delay the process for months.

“We want a more equitable workplace,” said Ashley Perez, visual arts director at SAY Sí, “We want to address issues that have led to turnover. We have questions about the future of SAY Sí and we want a voice in it.”

Small nonprofits like SAY Sí are a growing subset of union efforts, both from the grassroots level and from the efforts of larger unions, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Nonprofits today make up slightly less than 1 in 3 union petitions, she said, up from about 1 in 7 20 years ago. Part of that increase can be attributed to the new kinds of nonprofit staffs seeking to unionize. While hospitals and higher education institutions have long been the site of union organizing, she said, what’s new is the influx of workers at museums and arts organizations like SAY Sí.

“The feelings of many of these nonprofit workers are that they took risks during the pandemic. They worked harder than ever,” Bronfenbrenner said.

She also said it was not at all unusual for a union to be organized around more than just money. “If organizing campaigns were just about money, they could be stopped with a little money. But they tend to be organized over issues of fairness and respect, over a say in decision-making.”

SAY Sí employees say that’s what they’re looking for after almost three years of turbulence and change.

Ambitious expansion

Launched in 1994, SAY Sí offers free, year-long intensive arts courses that serve about 300 middle and high school students each year. Prior to the pandemic, it served thousands more through its community programming.

SAY Sí has nearly 30 employees between its on-site staff and other workers, many of them artists in their own right. About half are full-time employees, staffers say, with annual salaries ranging from about $38,000 to $65,000 with benefits. Part-time workers start at $15 an hour with no benefits.

In 2019, SAY Sí embarked on an ambitious expansion. It sought to add culinary arts, music composition and journalism to a slate that already included film and photography, game design and coding, performing arts and more. It wanted to beef up its capacity for students so it wouldn’t have to turn so many away.

A team of SAY Sí students storyboard scenes for the "Date Me Super Senpai" game.
A team of SAY Sí students storyboard scenes for the “Date Me Super Senpai” game. Credit: Courtesy / Say Sí

All of this was supposed to be enabled by moving out of its small longtime headquarters near the Blue Star Arts Complex and into a new space on the West Side that was four times bigger.

The planned $22 million renovation of the space was buoyed by a surge of private funding and government subsidies. The City of San Antonio contributed $3 million, Bexar County chipped in $1 million, and the San Antonio Housing Authority discounted another $1 million off its sale of the property to SAY Sí.

But expansion plans were soon derailed by the pandemic, and the planned renovation was significantly slimmed as private donors backed out in favor of funding pandemic-specific causes, staffers say.

Turnover in leadership

Leadership turnover added to the disruption. President and Chief Innovation Officer Jon Hinojosa, who served as executive director for many years, stepped down from leading day-to-day operations last year to focus more on fundraising. The two executive co-directors who succeeded him, Nicole Amri and Stephen Garza-Guzman, left near the end of the summer, submitting a letter on their final day to staffers outlining support for their nascent unionization effort to “organize for equity in the workplace and the betterment of workplace culture at SAY Sí.”

Hinojosa declined to comment on the record for this story.

An interim director was appointed for a two-month term, according to an Aug. 23 update on SAY Sí’s website. That ended last week with no replacement selected, staffers said. Currently the SAY Sí board’s executive committee runs the organization’s day-to-day operations.

About three weeks ago, staffers asked the board to recognize their right to unionize. Last week, the board offered its response.

“SAY Sí respects the rights of our staff to form or organize a union at work,” the board’s Oct. 3 statement began. But it chose to not voluntarily recognize the union, and instead have the National Labor Relations Board hold a vote.

“We understand some may be disappointed in our decision not to recognize the union based on union authorization cards alone but we believe firmly in the principle of allowing our staff to participate in a secret ballot election.”

An interview request submitted to SAY Sí’s board was directed to a communications consultant, who provided a statement outlining the board’s support of a “full democratic process.”

“The SAY Sí Board intends to support the NLRB’s decisions and will be 100% accountable to any directives they provide. And, we will honor the outcome of the election as determined by our staff.”

Alex Ramirez, a teaching artist in the media art studio, said he’s confident employees will prevail, as a “great majority” of the staff is supportive of the union effort.

A long road

The decision to go to an NLRB vote means the union effort is subject to a lengthy process over months.

Union organizers called the election a formality. “We are completely confident in the eventual victory of our organization,” said Amalia Ortiz, director of theater.

Staffers in the organizing effort have not yet submitted any specific language for a contract. But the center of their concerns are not wages or benefits, but something more abstract.

“We want more say in the direction that SAY Sí is headed, since we’ve invested so much,” said Ramirez. “This is a community institution.”

SAY Sí staff ask their board of directors to recognize a proposed union stating a desire to facilitate more workplace equity and have more say in the future of the nonprofit.
SAY Sí staff asked the nonprofit’s board of directors to recognize their union; the board instead has asked for a National Labor Relations Board vote, which could slow the process. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

“Transparency has been an issue,” Ortiz said. “Trust has been undermined at various times. We’ve had questions about the future, and we feel the best way to get them answered is to stand together as a union.”

Staffers declined to share specific examples of questions the board has not answered, saying only that they are concerned with the organization’s growth and expansion.

Support for the staffers’ effort has come from San Antonio City Council members Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Teri Castillo (D5).

Castillo wrote a letter in support of staffers to the board. “The nonprofit shop floor may look different from those pecan shellers,” she wrote, referencing the pecan shellers strike of 1938 that roiled San Antonio, “but the fight for dignity, respect and bargaining are the same.”

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.