After rift with former subsidiary, Ort America now facing internal union fight

Fresh off a battle with its former subsidiary, ORT America, the American fund-raising arm for World ORT, is embroiled in a nasty dispute with its union. Workers have scheduled a lunchtime demonstration for Friday at noon to protest what they are calling an attempt by ORT America management to bust the union.

The organization’s executive director, Hope Kessler, and the 20 or so union workers employed by ORT America have been renegotiating a labor contract that expired in February, but the sides are at a stalemate, according to Victoria Mitchell, who has worked as the organization’s fund development manager for 21 years and is the president of its union.

“She wants to reduce the rights of the employees and wants to be able to replace an employee with someone not in the union and not in the benefits package,” Mitchell said of Kessler. “We are trying to negotiate in good faith. We have never had an issue like this. She wants to do a union bust and that is it. She never worked with a union organization before. She doesn’t think we have the right to do anything.”

There are several issues at hand, according to Mitchell:

* The union would like management to match up to 4 percent of employees’ salaries for the organization’s 403B retirement fund. Management is offering 3 percent.

* Management would like to be able to hire three non-union secretaries. Now they have two.

* Management would like to be able to subcontract out work, a traditional sticking point for unions that want to protect their turf and make sure that all money spent on labor stays in house.

* Management submitted three pages of management rights clauses, that according to Mitchell amount to management’s desire to be able to fire employees without going through the due process that has traditionally made it very difficult to fire union employees without significant cause.

* ORT America now gives its employees every Jewish holiday off. Management would like to make employees use personal and vacation days for some Jewish holidays.

Mitchell says that the two sides were negotiating in good faith until April 29, when management issued a final offer that they say is non-negotiable. The two sides have a meeting set with an arbitrator sometime in June, but management says it will not budge.

“We have been negotiating in good faith and there has been absolutely no movement on the union side and we put out a final offer and that is our final offer,” Kessler said in a statement through a spokeswoman. “We have negotiated in good faith and made a fair and final offer an offer that is fair to our employees as well as our fiduciary responsibilities to ORT America. We agreed to meet with a mediator and have an appointment in June.”

Kessler, however, denied that management wanted to reduce the number of Jewish holidays that employees would have off, saying through the spokeswoman, “There will be no reduction in the number of holidays traditionally observed. There is no truth to it.”

Insiders say that the union is simply unwieldy and that getting any union member to do any work outside what is explicitly written into the contract as an employee’s job responsibility “takes two or three union meetings.”

And, they tell the Fundermentalist, the organization, like most non-profits, has to find ways to cut costs now because of the tightening economy – and that the union makes it very difficult to take such steps.

The Fundermentalist finds this little in-house tiff interesting on several levels.

This is yet another battle for ORT America, which along with its parent organization, World ORT, has been in a nasty spat with ORT Israel, its former subsidiary, which split with the organization last year. The World group said that the Israel group was not transparent in how its money was being spent, and the Israel group said that the World group was not giving it enough money in the first place.

That split has left the two groups warring over fund raising-territory as the Israel group attempts to make inroads with donors in Europe and the U.S. and the World group scrambles to create programs in Israel so they can still offer “Israel” to donors. It has manifested in a tug of war over who could use the name ORT to raise money both in Israel – where ORT Israel runs a vast network of vocational schools that are financed primarily by Israel’s government – and abroad, where World ORT runs a network of Jewish-based vocational schools around the world.

An Israeli court recently decided that, in Israel at least, ORT Israel owns the name ORT, but that World ORT could use the name to raise money, as long as it uses the full name “World ORT” and does not pass itself off simply as ORT. (I know. It boggles the Fundermentalist’s mind as well. But it is a nasty battle.)

On another level, ORT America is a founding member of the District Council 1707, a union for non-profit workers founded in 1932 by the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies.

Just something to note should ORT, traditionally an advocate for workers rights, bust its union.

(Full disclosure: The Fundermentalist is the shop steward at JTA.)

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