Disagreements between Berkeley nonprofit, union halt new contract

Carli Baker/Staff

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Disagreements over wage increases have caused a rift between a prominent Berkeley nonprofit organization and its unionized workers, halting negotiations for a new contract.

The negotiations for a new contract between the California Professional Employees union and its employer, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency — a nonprofit that provides food and shelter to clients who are homeless or have mental disabilities — have been underway since January. The two camps reached an impasse when the nonprofit denied its employees the 2 percent pay raise they demanded, according to a press release on Monday.

The nonprofit employs about 90 people, many of whom are members of the union.

Donald Frazier, executive director of the nonprofit, said that his organization — with an annual budget of about $5 million — would be driven to bankruptcy if it granted the 2 percent raise demanded by the union. He said that the organization offers competitive wages and compensates its employees better than other nonprofit organizations in the Bay Area.

“Funding is tight,” Frazier said. “They’re asking me to increase the deficit, and I’m just not willing to do that. BOSS is not equipped to do that. Shame on them for asking the impossible.”

Employees of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency have not received a raise since 2006, according to Christopher Graeber, a business representative for the union. He said that so far, the organization has only agreed to give its workers an extra day off each year.

“The new executive director refuses to bend at all,” Graeber said. “We’re very disappointed with the way BOSS handles these things. We’re asking for a minimal cost-of-living raise.”

Boona Cheema, a former executive director of the organization who stepped down at the end of February, said that current leaders of the organization may be unwilling to accommodate the union’s demands due to costs for new managerial and administrative positions. She said that she thought those changes were meant to strengthen the organization’s infrastructure but that it may have been better to increase wages and concede to the union’s demands.

“I really believe the money should have been shared,” Cheema said after the current negotiations began. “I’m a strong union supporter and have been for all my life.”

In recent years, the organization’s financial difficulties have contributed significantly to the current standoff.

A 2003 Berkeley City Council document describes how the organization’s accounting practices effectively resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to the Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as to other institutions. Graeber said that when the recession hit, the combination of the deficit and tough economic times caused cuts in employee wages, which have since not been restored.

“We’ve always reached an agreement,” said Graeber. “It’s the first time we’ve gotten to this level.”

Contact Lydia Tuan at [email protected].