About 150 workers at Shalom House have come out in support of forming a union, Shalom House Workers United.
Workers at Shalom House in Portland have filed a petition to form a union. A majority of the residential and client services staff went public with their union campaign on Friday. Credit: Courtesy of MSEA-SEIU Local 1989

Workers at a Portland social service agency have filed a petition for union recognition.

About 150 residential and client services workers at Shalom House, including a supermajority of full-time workers, have come out in support of forming a union, Shalom House Workers United, with the Maine Service Employees Association SEIU Local 1989.

The Shalom House workers want to form a union to fight for higher wages, improved training and adequate staff levels so they can better support their clients.

“We need better training so everyone has the skills they need to be successful at work from day one, we need higher pay so we don’t have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, and we need staffing levels that allow us to take time off and care for ourselves. When this isn’t happening, we burn out and good employees leave. That just makes hard conditions even harder for those of us that stick around. Our union will take on that cycle of burnout and work to make sure that jobs at Shalom are sustainable and secure in the long run. Most importantly, when our jobs are sustainable, clients succeed,” Krystina O’Sullivan, a residential support worker at Shalom House, said in a Monday statement.

Shalom House serves people experiencing homelessness and with a history of mental illness, offering group homes and independent apartments, voucher assistance, and case management, according to the union.

“We form strong bonds with our clients,” Bob Black, relief staff at Shalom House, said in a statement. “We’re often their main or only support system. And when we’re not being paid a living wage, and we’re not being treated with regard for our own well-being, people leave. And usually we don’t want to leave. When this happens, our programs lack stability, we are less able to provide a continuity of care, and our clients suffer for it. Shalom House Workers United will prioritize improvements that will strengthen our programs and help clients access the quality of care they deserve.”

A delegation of Shalom House workers, along with officials from the Southern Maine Labor Council and Maine AFL-CIO and state Rep. Charles Skold, a Portland Democrat who serves on the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee, presented a statement in support of the union and a request for management to stay neutral during the election.

The National Labor Relations Board will schedule a date for the election.

Shalom House is the latest example of an upsurge in union activity across the state since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes a high-profile 2021 campaign at Maine Medical Center in Portland, where nurses overwhelmingly fended off a drive to decertify the union last year.

Other successful union drives include the Portland Museum of Arttransit workers in Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach; the Starbucks in Biddeford; and the Bangor Daily News.

Despite a string of successes, workers have encountered resistance elsewhere, including at the Chipotle in Augusta and the Starbucks on Middle Street in Portland, where the national chains have faced accusations of union-busting after closing those locations.