Facing coronavirus and seeking protections, J Street workers unionize

Liberal pro-Israel group’s staff say they want to ensure pay equity, transparency; organization welcomes union as workers find creative ways to show support while physically apart

A sign welcomes attendees to J Street’s 2013 national conference in Washington. (photo credit: Courtesy of J Street)
A sign welcomes attendees to J Street’s 2013 national conference in Washington. (photo credit: Courtesy of J Street)

WASHINGTON — The staff of J Street, the progressive pro-Israel group, wants to make sure the organization is a progressive workplace.

Last week, J Street employees announced they were unionizing amid the economic uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami welcomed and voluntarily recognized the J Street Workers Union, although an official recognition agreement is still being hammered out.

“J Street is committed to ensuring that the values that we pursue every day in our work – justice, equity, transparency, cooperation and respect – are reflected in our workplace,” Ben-Ami said. “We recognize the vital role that unions play in the pursuit of economic justice and the importance of organizing as a vehicle for political change.”

The formation of the J Street Workers Union was in process months before the novel coronavirus upended American life.

Shifra Sered, the group’s associate regional director for New York and Connecticut and a union member, said that talks began last fall, when employees approached the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU) to be its representative.

But as Jewish nonprofits increasingly face budget shortfalls and possible payroll cuts because of the pandemic’s economic toll, the J Street staff banded together.

A view of sticker on a street lamp-post reading ‘Who will survive in America?’ as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States on March 22, 2020 in New York City. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images/AFP)

“The uncertainty over COVID-19 has encouraged solidarity to make sure everyone is taken care of if cuts are in the pipeline,” the union said in a statement.

In a phone interview, NPEU President Kayla Blado said the workers’ main long-term objectives were to ensure “good equity provisions on issues around race and gender, how pay is reflected through different demographics and how people get promoted differently.”

J Street employees have also said they want to have a bigger role in shaping the trajectory of the advocacy group.

“I’ve heard over and over again from fellow members of the union the importance of really wanting a say in the direction that the organization takes,” Sered said.

“We all work at J Street because we all really strongly believe in its mission, so we want, as a union, to have a seat at the table, not only about staff benefits, which are very, very important, but also a stronger voice in how the organization functions.”

The group has suggested it is amenable to working with the new union.

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami addresses the liberal Zionist group’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. in October 2019 (Courtesy)

“J Street has established a spirit of ‘continuous improvement,’ addressing challenges and problems over the years with guidance from staff at all levels of the organization,” Ben-Ami said.

Negotiations over a bargaining contract are expected to begin in earnest in July.

The J Street union’s establishment comes as employees at DC think tanks and nonprofits increasingly unionize. Several months ago, Jews United for Justice formed a union, with NPEU also as its representative.

Despite J Street workers being physically apart, Sered said they were “finding creative ways” to show solidarity, such as changing the icon on their gmail accounts.

“The typical strategies of wearing union buttons and having union signs in your office aren’t going to work when we’re all working from home on virtual platforms,” she said.

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