Love of animals leads to union organizing drive
Cats at the Austin Cat Shelter. Animal care workers are organizing a union out of concern both for their working conditions and the welfare of the animals. IAM is organizing in Austin and has organized the Cat Shelter on Western Ave. in Chicago.

AUSTIN, Texas—Austin Pets Alive! workers love the dogs and cats they care for in their shelter—which is why the humans who care for them are organizing with the Machinists.

They want “a real seat at the table” to advocate for the animals, not just themselves.

The workers share the shelter’s goals, expressed on its website, of giving loving care—and eventually finding homes for—the animals “most at risk of euthanasia” in the Texas capital and its surrounding area. But despite the “innovative programs” to aid the animals which the shelter touts, it can fall short.

The workers are organizing to ensure it doesn’t.

“We are doing this for our workers and our animals,” says Ryan Martinez, one of the leaders in the staff-generated organizing drive at the big Austin, Texas, animal shelter. If the Austin Pets Allied Workers win the upcoming union election, “It’ll make our lives more sustainable” via better pay and better working conditions.

“And it’ll make their lives more sustainable” through better care in what will be—hopefully—a new and upgraded building, Martinez and colleague Ellis Avallone said in a telephone interview.

While the workers are barely scraping by on minimum and low wages, the conditions in the shelter “are not safe” for the animals. That’s because the shelter is in an historic but crumbling building. A move is pending, but workers don’t know the details, yet.

The hazards pain the animal-loving staffers—who are so dedicated to the animals that they even managed to find private homes, with heat, for most of them during the great Texas ice storm and blizzard last winter. That storm knocked out power all over the Lone Star State.

“The living conditions for our animals are our working conditions, and the spaces can be hazardous for us,” says Martinez. “The dogs are outside and that’s challenging in a place like Texas” which is so hot that almost major-league baseball games in the state are night games, under air-conditioned domes, or both.

“We want safe and sustainable working conditions—conditions that are important for taking care of the animals,” adds Avallone.

The Austin Pets Allied Workers filed election recognition cards on April 4 with the National Labor Relations Board office covering Austin. The shelter has approximately 200 workers and 55% of them signed cards for an election seeking recognition for IAM District 776.

They’re the second animal care group—and the largest in the U.S.—to file for an election with the Machinists. The first, in Chicago last year, was organized with the help of the California-based National Veterinary Professionals Union, which also aided in the Austin campaign. The Chicago drive overcame the union buster the Tree House Humane Society, a cat shelter on Western Avenue in Chicago’s far North Side, brought in. The vote there was 14-4 after a one-month campaign.

The Austin workers asked management for voluntary card-check recognition, but management refused. So they’re going to an NLRB-run vote by the end of April. So far, the two said, management has not engaged in an anti-union campaign. But the workers are campaigning hard to win the vote, just in case management reverses course.

The organizing campaign has led the shelter workers to bond with each other and the community, the two reported. “The community response has been fantastic,” says Ellis, with more than 250 signatures and counting from residents on a pro-worker petition.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.