Erin Alvarez, a union organizer at Planned Parenthood, in Portland on Thursday. Hers is among a handful of newly organized unions at Portland nonprofits that have pushed for racial justice and equity in contracts, moving beyond traditional labor issues such as wages, benefits and working conditions. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A new generation of labor unions in Portland is tackling racism and discrimination in the workplace through collective bargaining campaigns that extend beyond strictly economic issues.

Young, progressive workers say they want enforceable contracts that reflect their employers’ pledges of diversity, racial justice and equity.

“Workers are really frustrated with the idea that management would, in theory, agree with the concepts, but they would also have to really push to get the change to happen in the contract language,” said Angela MacWhinnie, director of organizing at the Maine Service Employees Association, which represents over 13,000 Maine nonprofit, government and education workers.

Unionized workers at Preble Street Resource Center, Planned Parenthood Northern New England and ACLU of Maine heavily emphasized diversity, equity and inclusion in recent contract talks. In some cases, what are often regarded as social issues have been as high a priority for the unions as improvements in wages, benefits and working conditions, the traditional pillars of organized labor campaigns.

At the Preble Street social services agency, addressing equity and anti-discrimination was the second-highest priority, just behind wages, for 150 union workers. The union would not accept the agency’s substantial compensation proposal until it addressed their diversity concerns, said organizer Frankie St. Amand.

“When it came to our racial equity proposals, people were not ready to step back, they were not ready to let go of any of them,” she said. The Preble Street union is 3 years old and ratified its second contract in April.



Discrimination is a reality for people of color doing the agency’s work with unhoused clients or those struggling with mental health and substance use, St. Amand said. But until the latest contract, workers didn’t know whether reported incidents were being addressed by management.

“It is possible some action was taken, such as education or approaching a conversation with the client,” St. Amand said. “It is possible nothing ever happens.”

Under the language in its new contract, the agency has to respond promptly when a worker reports being subjected to violence or hate speech on the job.

Preble Street’s contract also includes a groundbreaking bilingual pay differential for employees who use a second language at work. It guarantees union participation in any of the organization’s racial equity committees and pushes management to highlight diversity and equity in its hiring policies.

In a statement, Preble Street said it is committed to racial equity and inclusion but knows it has a lot of work to do.


“It’s going to be hard work, and we are going to make mistakes along the way,” said Executive Director Mark Swann. “But this agency is invested in the systemic change that it will take to ensure a more equitable and inclusive future.”

Diversity and equity were rallying cries for workers in the lead-up to a union vote at Planned Parenthood Northern New England in 2020.

“When we started organizing, we were trying to center all of our proposals behind trying to erode the way we allow white supremacy and bias and prejudice into the workings of the job,” said shop steward and bargaining committee member Erin Alvarez.

Despite the reproductive health agency’s efforts to highlight its work against racism and discrimination, union workers believed the workforce and its leadership remained too heavily white.

“Our organization does try to talk about issues of race and racism and white supremacy, but our employees who aren’t white are not feeling any benefits,” Alvarez said.

Agency Vice President for Public Affairs Nicole Clegg said the organization has done a lot to promote diversity, but that it could do more. In negotiating its first union contract, management wanted to hear from workers what their priorities were, she said.


“When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, we didn’t disagree with prioritizing that,” Clegg said. Any issue raised by the union “is important to staff – it is also important to management. There was a lot of agreement.”

Pushing for better wages would address the agency’s lack of internal diversity and high turnover rate for its nonwhite workers, she said. The union’s first contract boosted wages for the lowest-paid positions by $2 an hour, helping make those jobs more viable for those without the privilege and support their white co-workers enjoy, Alvarez said.

The contract, ratified late last year, secured a pay differential for Black, Indigenous and other nonwhite workers involved in workplace equity and inclusion; union participation in the agency’s diversity committees; a floating holiday for workers who don’t celebrate Christian holidays; and rules to ensure unbiased promotions and new hires.

“If the people who stay here for the longest amount of time are not exclusively white people, I’d say, ‘Hey, I think that made a difference,’ ” Alvarez said.


For workers at ACLU of Maine, economic issues were intimately connected to equity. When the union was formed two years ago, its primary focus was raising wages for the lowest-paid members. Those workers happened to be women of color.


“People felt they were not paid enough. They were struggling to pay rent and feed children to the extent they were working other jobs,” said Michael Kebede, a member of the bargaining committee. “We felt the organization’s pay scale was at odds with its values.”

After a year of hard bargaining, the union won a $60,000 minimum salary, better benefits, a work-from-home policy and other workplace changes. Kebede said it was harder than he expected to convince ACLU of Maine management the connection between living wages and equity.

When you get your paycheck, that determines what neighborhood you live in, where you send your kids to school, the things you can afford, he said. “It is not this abstract, separate issue. It is central to racial and gender justice – getting that point across was difficult.”

ACLU of Maine President Jodi Nofsinger agreed that bargaining the first contract was challenging but said the the end result of workers’ efforts will be a stronger advocate on these issues.

“Ultimately we came to understand that their ideas and their vision was something that would make us a better organization and was in accordance in our values and principles,” Nofsinger said.

The commitment to fighting workplace racism, discrimination and bias embraced by the three Portland unions is partly a reflection of members’ demographics and ideologies. The new bargaining units were formed in workplaces that attract people driven by a sense of social justice during a period of intense national debate about race.


Generally, labor unions contribute to racial and gender equity by lowering pay gaps, combating workplace abuses and fostering solidarity, said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of Maine AFL-CIO.

Bigger and more established industrial and public sector unions do human rights work but sometimes don’t frame it as explicitly as newer bargaining units, Schlobohm said. Unions have an uneven history with racism, at times working for racial justice and at others as perpetrators of discrimination, he said.

With union power and membership at a relative low point, organized labor has folded social issues confronting local communities and workplaces into organizing and contract campaigns.

“There is a growing movement that is called bargaining for the common good. It’s a recognition that, in part because of declining union power, they can’t win alone,” Schlobohm said. “We need to articulate and make a set of bargaining demands that go beyond the traditional wages, hours and working conditions that directly connect to the community.”

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