Alliance for Justice Union members vote unanimously to ratify first contract

Members of the Alliance for Justice Union voted unanimously Feb. 15 to ratify the first union contract in the organization’s 43-year history. They unionized as part of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild in March 2020 and began negotiations six months later.

Aaron True, a member of the union’s three-person bargaining committee, said workers made significant progress on their three top priorities: salaries – especially for junior workers – health insurance and protections against discrimination. They also won improvements in leave, work hours, remote work and other benefits.

The contract, which runs through 2024, has an effective date of Jan. 1, 2021, with staffers getting one year’s backpay for increases resulting from new salary minimums and annual 3.5% cost-of-living increases.

Minimum salaries will run from $50,000 per year for associates and $60,000 for senior associates to $104,000 for senior counsels, senior strategists and directors. Employees who perform bilingual work will receive $4,000 enhancements. Staffers whose salary already exceeds the minimums will receive a one-time bump of 3%.

Health insurance, including dental and vision coverage, will be provided through a union-sponsored plan, with management paying 100% of premiums. This is a big improvement over the previous situation, when AfJ gave workers $500 towards health insurance coverage, which was procured through the Washington, DC, healthcare marketplace, True explained. That meant that younger workers were essentially getting free healthcare, but older workers, whose costs were higher, were paying of hundreds of dollars in premiums.

“The piece I’m most excited about is when we list out what discriminatory behavior can include,” True said, noting that AfJ, like many nonprofits, has had a lot of turnover among staffers of color.

The contract says, “Examples of discriminatory behavior include, but are not limited to, excluding, ignoring, sidelining, or belittling staff during meetings, discussions, or decision-making in the course of work, on the basis of a protected characteristic or activity.” These examples reflect the way discrimination in the workplace is often felt, but not often addressed.

The nondiscrimination clause also expands protection beyond the traditional categories of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin and age to include many others: political affiliation, marital or partnership status, familial status, gender, including pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, reproductive health decisions, or related medical conditions, gender identity, gender expression, military or veteran status, medical condition or history, including cancer and AIDS/HIV, genetic information including predisposition or carrier status and that of family members, disability (mental or physical), physical characteristics or personal appearance, including height, weight, and hair (including hair texture or hairstyle if that style or texture are commonly associated with a particular race or national origin), ethnicity, ancestry, status as a survivor or family member of a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, or on any basis prohibited by federal or state statute.

It also prohibits discrimination against any employee or prospective employee due to actual or perceived arrest or criminal record.

Many staffers were “personally invested” in the nondiscrimination clause, said True, who previously worked for Pride at Work. “It certainly was a priority for me.”

Members of the Contract Action Team and other union members played an important role in negotiations, True said. CAT members researched salaries, healthcare and discrimination provisions in other contracts in the local and drafted the union’s nondiscrimination proposal.

And when negotiations seemed to be dragging, union members attended a virtual all-staff meeting displaying a graphic that said, “Fair Contract Now.”

Staff will also see improved policies for remote work, vacation leave (including the ability to donate days to others), parental leave (up to 16 weeks), and the ability to use sick days to take time off to take care of someone equivalent to a close family member.

The improved policies also include flexible work times and comp time for staff who are exempt from overtime pay. Workers also secured a 35-hour 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workweek with one hour of paid lunch. Previously staffers worked from 9 to 5:30, with a 30-minute, non-paid lunch break.

Other benefits include a non-taxed $70 per month cell phone reimbursement fee for staff that routinely need to use their cell phone for work calls — whether when working at home or traveling.

Each staff member will be allotted an annual professional development amount of $1,250.