“How dare you collect money from the Patriots and then the next day get rid of your staff.”
With anger, shock, and dismay, laid off worker-students and allies took to the streets in Dorchester last week to accuse a respected educational nonprofit of union-busting, institutional racism, and “poverty pimping.”
More than 50 people turned out to an otherwise quiet city neighborhood with megaphones and dozens of “Black Workers Matter” signs to hear speakers, chant slogans like “Boston is a union town,” and then march down Dorchester Avenue.
Last week, College Bound Dorchester laid off one-third of its staff: eight “instructors,” including two ESOL teachers, and “college readiness advisors,” just days after staff informed CEO Mark Culliton that they were forming a union, and one week after a star-studded, corporate-sponsored fundraiser that netted the nonprofit over $500,000, with $100,000 from Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The administration blamed funding problems caused by the pandemic.
College Bound Dorchester is a nonprofit that focuses on “gang-related youth,” providing stipends, tutoring, and a path “from the corner to the street,” according to its website and to its staff, with classes and through a program it calls “Boston Uncornered.”
Uncornered identifies and recruits what it calls “Core Influencers,” youth leaders involved in violence, gangs, or even in prison, and provides a monthly stipend and tutoring, with the ultimate goal of a high school degree, college, and employment.
Earlier this spring, a majority of the staffers signed cards to support the formation of a union—Uncornered United, affiliated with SEIU 888—and asked for union recognition. After the administration refused, on June 11 the group then filed a “notice of service,” indicating that members would go to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The next day, eight staffers got termination letters. Uncornered United then filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the, according to SEIU 888.
“They declined to voluntarily recognize us,” Joe Tesch, one of those laid off, said into the megaphone at the protest. “Clearly this is in retaliation for our organizing efforts!”
“Shame, shame, shame!” the crowd chanted.
“What this man is doing is not right!” said Sharell Jacobs, whose layoff in January was one of the incidents that led staff to start organizing. “How dare you collect money from the Patriots and then the next day get rid of your staff. We built this program!”
In their speeches and in interviews, staff and students repeatedly decried what they said was a lack of transparency, respect and participation in decision-making.
Luis Rodrigues, a College Readiness Advisor (CRA) who was not among those laid off, is pro-union and supports his colleagues. He and many other current and former staffers, as well as current clients, the Core Influencers, showed up to join to protest and support the unionizing effort.
“Decisions are being made from the top, and the bottom carries the organization,” Rodrigues explained. “I don’t think we’re a racist organization. I just think the power structure, the culture, is made up of people who don’t look like me.”
But many speakers at the protest disagreed. Six of the eight people let go are black.
Greater Boston Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Darlene Lombos was one of many labor activists who showed up.
“This is what we say is blatant racism,” she said to the crowd.
Ed Norton, 62 and a Dorchester native, and who was among those laid off, read a powerful statement saying layoffs of people doing important community work were “crazy.” He condemned the administration which he said has created an atmosphere of “mistrust and anger” by not including staff in decision-making processes. That lack of participation led directly to the union efforts, he said.
Norton’s title was “CRA coach, Social and Emotional Director.”
One after another, his colleagues and students talked about his selfless dedication to the program and to each of them, as individuals.
Some of the speakers also denounced what they called “poverty pimping” because of the way youth in the program are “rolled out for funders,” as Kenny Schoonmaker, a CRA who was not laid off, put it.
Romilda Pereira, laid off in January, agreed.
“You are using their stories,” she roared into the microphone. “Boo-hoo, give us money!”
“I was one of those violent drug dealers you hear about,” said speaker Matthew Jackson, who is now in college. “Now I’m about to graduate and they’re asking me to come work here. Well, if this is what’s going on, I don’t want to be part of it.”
Jackson, who was one of the Uncornered clients who spoke at the June 9 online fundraiser, said he would not have made it through school and other challenges without the staffers who have been “holding me up.”
Protestors also denounced Culliton’s salary, which was $185,000 in 2017, according to tax records, about four times the average salary of those staffers laid off.
After the protest, about 30 people marched down Dorchester Avenue and demonstrated in front of Culliton’s home on a quiet side street. As they walked, they shouted, sang, and chanted and handed out leaflets urging people to sign a petition and telephone or email Culliton to demand reinstatement of the workers and recognition of the union. Many drivers honked horns to show their support.
“Hey there Mark, what do you say, how many more will you lay off today?” was one of the slogans they sang.
“You’ve heard about it for years, now you see it: angry black people!” Jacobs shouted through a megaphone.
Co-founders push back
The CBD co-founders, reached by telephone, rejected the accusations of racism and union-busting, calling them “false” and “insulting.”
“I find the charges of racism cynical at best and disgusting at worst,” CEO Mark Culliton said, adding that the layoffs were planned “before there was any notice of unionizing activity.”
Michelle Caldeira, senior vice president, said the organization is majority people of color.
“I’m insulted and I’m disappointed by this tactic to completely erase my identity and my leadership,” said Caldeira, who is of Guyanan origin. She lives in London.
“Because we have a staff that is majority people of color, it’s going to appear that we only laid off people of color,” she added, noting that prior to the layoffs, there were 31 employees, 69% people of color, and that with 23 employees, the percentage is now 74%.
A glance at the website makes clear, however, that leadership is not predominantly African-American.
But both Caldeira and Culliton contradicted the claim that COVID caused the layoffs when they also said that the organization had been planning on cutting out the ESOL programming and transitioning to focus entirely on the Uncornered program.
Prior to the pandemic, the program was supporting 45 students, Caldeira said. In May and June, they stipended a total of 125 people.
“None of the CRAs that have been laid off are identifying the young people we want to work with,” Caldeira said, implying that those kept on are those who can recruit from the streets. “Change is difficult, but we want to focus our resources on where we think we will have the most impact.”
Culliton echoed Caldeira, stressing the importance of the stipend payments.
“We see the next 12 to 24 months ahead as really tough times,” he said, adding that he, Caldeira, and another administrator took temporary pay cuts.
According to Caldeira, CBD’s current budget is about $4.6 million.
Uncornered united against layoffs
During its online fundraiser on June 9, hosted by journalist Andrea Kremer and sponsored by Eversource, Bank of America, RODE and two banks, Caldeira stressed the importance of students. She told attendees that CBD was going to restructure “our whole organization so that [the Core Influencers] are the ones making the decisions about who we work with and who we invest in.”
Before the event kicked off, a video showed photos of people—presumably staffers, students, and Core Influencers—wearing “Boston Uncornered” hoodies as music played.
But just a week later, CBD staffers and former staffers had “X-ed” out the “Boston Uncornered” on those same hoodies with duct tape.
Rand Wilson, SEIU 888 organizer and chief of staff, said the NLRB process could take weeks, but that he believed the Uncornered United is correct in claiming the layoffs were retaliation for attempting to form a union.
“We should not be distracted by the charge of retaliation,” Wilson said. “The most important thing is that if these layoffs are in fact warranted, management [would] sit down and be transparent and forthcoming with the workers to prove it. That’s what collective bargaining and a union is all about.”