Battered Shelter

Union busting may underlie many of the Brewster Center's problems.

MANAGEMENT AT the domestic violence service agency the Brewster Center complains that it is under siege.

Critics say there should be no surprise. No surprise from the labor pickets every Friday at Brewster headquarters on East Broadway Boulevard, no surprise from charges of union busting and unfair labor practices, no surprise that the City Council has restricted Brewster to month-to-month funding, and no surprise from the controversy arising from a shutdown of five satellite offices.

One office cut, at El Pueblo Neighborhood Center, generated so much reaction that the plan was modified to continue services there.

And while those cuts and the response from the City Council--primarily from Democrat Steve Leal, whose southside Ward 5 includes El Pueblo--have attracted the most attention, it is the simmering labor dispute that is forcing Brewster to alter its management style. It is undergoing what few non-profit agencies that depend upon taxpayer money doled out by the City Council and the Pima County Board of Supervisors are ever subjected to: scrutiny and change.

Brewster can receive up to $72,000 from the city this year. And it will receive $122,000 from Pima County's outside agency funding as well as $13,000 in a Community Development Block Grant through the county.

Ellyne Bell, going on her fourth year as Brewster's executive director, says the changes were simply a necessary reaction to service needs and an updated business plan. Others contend that it typifies the union- busting and retaliation carried out by Bell and her team.

The closures, says Bell, "didn't affect anybody's job."

But Christina Peterson's job at Brewster was affected. She lost it. Why? "Negativity."

Despite repeated strong job evaluations, Peterson, a leader in the drive to organize Brewster's advocates, counselors and other workers, was summarily fired on April 17. Two weeks earlier, she had received an "outstanding" review.

Trying to uncover the reason was just as frustrating as the blanket description "negativity." Bell and Brewster refused to disclose to Peterson the reasons for so long that she once, in a letter seeking explanation, wrote, "I presume that this is because I am being protected by the 'confidentiality policies' against myself."

Peterson, a University of Chicago anthropology graduate, joined the Brewster staff in 1996. She went there after a rocky experience at Tucson Centers for Women and Children. That association culminated in her legal victory and monetary settlement with the Tucson Centers, which arose from a lawsuit Peterson, a self-described pagan, filed after she was accused of placing a curse on that agency's executive director, Norma MacKenzie.

In one of three general categories explaining her termination from Tucson Centers for Women and Children, MaryAnn Adams, the program coordinator, wrote on April 10, 1998, that Peterson was dismissed for "dishonesty and providing inaccurate information to the point of interfering with agency programs. This is related to the 'curse' you put on Norma. Several staff complained that this type of behavior is negative, insubordinate and somewhat cruel considering the work we do. You denied any involvement with the curse yet we have three signed affidavits ... ."

"We settled cheaply," Peterson says of the $6,500 payment she received to end the Superior Court lawsuit.

THE CURSE, OR THE fallout from it, seemed to follow Peterson through the close-knit advocacy community to Brewster. She was called a "bitch" and "religious bigot." Sometimes, the nicest thing management said about Peterson was that she was a "union organizer."

"Elleyne Bell bills herself as a Wiccan," Peterson says. "For her, it was the union, not a curse.'"

Bell says she does not call herself anything. A former seminarian, she says she assists at Grace St. Paul and "works for the Mass of the Third Millennium as a worshipper and dancer."

Among Brewster's workers, Bell says, are "Jewish people, people who are Christian" and others, including non-believers.

"Everybody needs a place to go for strength," Bell says of her staff, which she describes as "incredibly diverse."

Further, she says that "nobody gives two shakes" about someone's beliefs. "I certainly don't."

Yet, within the whirlwind buffeting Peterson swirls the charge that she "persecuted an unnamed Christian" at Brewster on Good Friday.

Peterson, who taught English as a second language at Cal State San Bernardino before coming to Tucson in 1995, speaks with a refreshing directness and clarity. Despite her academic achievement, Phi Beta Kappa at Chicago, she burdens no one with pretentiousness. She talks of the accusations at Brewster and Tucson Centers for Women and Children as absurdities.

A Spanish-speaker, Peterson began work at Brewster as a bilingual crisis advocate at the agency's Casa Amparo. Among the notes in her first review: that her job was "exceptionally well done," that she conducted herself "in a very professional manner" and was "dependable and responsible."

In April 1999, Peterson was promoted to counselor advocate, and her review included such things as "a great asset to Brewster" and that she did a "great job at counseling" and had "great communication skills" and "great insight." She served as interim program coordinator at Casa Amparo, then recommended her permanent successor, a Hispanic. In December 1999, she was given Brewster's "Best Effort" recognition award. And she received several notices of commendation for workshops and lectures.

Peterson returned to work as a crisis advocate at Brewster's other shelter, West House, in July last year. In November, she was offered but declined the position of program coordinator for Casa Amparo and West House. In January she received a pay raise, and on March 8 her review stated that she provided "a very good example of integrity, respect and (that she) fulfilled the mission of Brewster Center." And she was praised for keeping a "positive attitude."

Bell signed the evaluation. She says personnel laws, the complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board, and what she calls Peterson's "litigiousness" prevent her from discussing any employment issues at Brewster, including Peterson's.

Peterson says that Bell and the Brewster management team wore down employees, practicing sexism in giving unqualified men higher pay for similar management or office jobs, and racism in treatment of Hispanics and the lack of African-American in management.

In one communiqué to Bell 10 months ago, Peterson wrote, "there is enough stress in this field for all of us without our needing to create more for each other."

BUT THE STRESS, FOR Peterson and others, went unabated. Peterson was talked to about "being 'happy' in her job. You have to be happy in your job," she was told, "or you can't effectively do your job." The employees considered organizing and began exploration late last year.

Many of the issues the workers talked about were too close to their clients. Brewster must maintain the confidentiality of the women it serves, and some complaints about working conditions were threatening to expose some clients. Employees were prevented from taking their complaints to Brewster's board of directors.

They scouted unions. Discipline became more frequent, a subject of numerous complaints filed with the NLRB that include termination and threat of termination for discussing union activity and surveillance.

Eventually they interviewed representatives from the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.

"They gave the best definition," Peterson says. "It's not what you say, it's what you do."

Prospective members felt comfortable with AFSCME, the local Council 97 and its field services representative, Ray Figueroa.

Workers voted this spring in favor of the union. It wasn't even close, 23-1.

The National Labor Relations Board has upheld the workers and union on a number of issues, including Peterson's complaints. The NLRB ordered Brewster to reinstate Peterson.

She is looking forward to returning, despite the history.

"Burnout does not come from clients; we reaffirm our commitment daily," Peterson says. "It comes from abuse from agencies that are supposed to treat it and prevent it."

Bell, who has complained about battling "onslaughts of misinformation," says she will accept the NLRB's finding.

"It's somewhat out of our control. This is all quite new to us. We've done a lot with employment law, but this is different. It is labor law," says Bell, who is paid $53,000 a year.

Management at Brewster, which has about 40 workers and operates this year on a budget of about $1.3 million, "feels like they are walking on egg shells," Bell says. "Every time you turn around, someone is filing a charge against them. We're trying to be aware, hyper-vigilant of people's behavior."

In an irony for Peterson, Bell says that the union "is forcing us to be not as laid back as we were. It has always been kind of easy-going."

Then in a tone of optimism, Bell says, "I hope people will use the union for the real reason, good reason."

As for Peterson, now that she's returning, what's next at Brewster?

"I'd love to be the steward."