Between Issues

DIVERSITY THRIFT WORKERS TAKE ON MANAGEMENT, WALK OUT AND WIN!

By Kat McNeal

Striking Diversity workers address a gathering crowd of supporters on Monday night. Photo by Kat McNeal.

Diversity Thrift is a used-goods store founded in 1999 to benefit the city’s LGBTQ community. It’s a project of Diversity Richmond, a nonprofit that has been viewed as a leading voice in the local LGBTQ community, with the thrift shop providing the revenue used to support the work of the nonprofit, which often supports other LGBTQ organizations.

The shop sits at 1407 Sherwood Ave. in an industrial area in Richmond’s North Side. The boldly muraled black, pink and teal building, tucked alongside the I-95/64 interchange, is a local landmark, standing out from the surrounding stretches of parking lots and fenced-off storage yards. 

Save for the rumble of vehicle traffic across the nearby highway overpass, the area is usually quiet at night, a calm stretch of warehouses and silent big-rig trucks. But that silence was broken this month as long-standing and unaddressed grievances drove the workers to action.

The striking workers, composed of all 10 of the thrift store’s non-supervisory employees and a salaried ally working for Diversity Richmond, were mostly LGBTQ, young — all under 35 — and about 25 percent Black. They nearly all work part time for just $11 an hour. Their primary grievances were an alleged incident of workplace sexual harassment they say was mishandled, along with the low pay and workplace safety issues.

Here’s The Virginia Defender’s account of what has happened, what has been won so far and what the workers are asking from the community as their fight continues for dignity and justice on the job.

Saturday, Nov. 6

The workers asked Diversity’s president and executive director, Bill Harrison, to close the store and meet with them to discuss their concerns. Harrison refused, the workers walked out and the strike was on.

Despite the work stoppage, the store remained open, staffed by the store’s two managers, three shift supervisors, relatives of managers and executives, volunteers and people performing court-ordered community service.

Sunday, Nov. 7

The 11 striking Diversity workers gathered across the street from the store to raise their voices in protest. They were joined by supporters from the community, maintaining a steady presence of about 30 people at any given time.

Monday, Nov. 8

The workers returned for a second protest, this time with about 100 supporters, mostly youth.

They also had chosen two representatives: Aurora Higgs, a 31-year-old Black, queer, nonbinary femme who works as the nonprofit’s program director, and Jeremy Stump, a 27-year-old, white gay man and the store’s weekend truck driver.

Aurora Higgs, addressing the crowd on Monday night. Photo by Kat McNeal.

Diversity Richmond’s executive committee was scheduled to meet that evening and the striking workers were planning to meet with them to discuss their demands. The crowd carried signs, some provided by staff organizers, some brought by supporters, admonishing Diversity to deal with its employees in good faith and repeating the staff’s request to the community not to patronize the store until the work stoppage was over.

“Don’t Donate, Don’t Buy,” read one sign, held by Diversity donation sorter Daniel Goodson.

Striking worker Daniel Goodson with a sign. For the duration of the work stoppage, participating employees asked supporters not to purchase from or donate to the store. Photo by Kat McNeal.

“More Like Adversity Richmond,” read a supporter’s sign.

A delegation from Virginia Commonwealth University’s union, United Campus Workers, brought a banner reading, “When We Fight, We Win.”

Some members of the steering committee of VCU’s United Campus Workers (UCW) with a banner. Photo by Kat McNeal.

Other organizations showing support were Richmond’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter, the Richmond branch of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Virginia Defenders and the Young Communist League.

At the urging of the workers, the crowd carefully avoided Diversity property, sticking to sidewalks or grass bordering adjacent industrial lots. One conscientious protester held a trash bag and picked up litter as the crowd stood and waited for the hour of the meeting to arrive and the workers to go inside.

As the time of the scheduled board meeting drew near, however, the building stayed dark and the parking lot empty. Then two of the assembled staff received texts: the board’s executive committee would be pleased to meet with them the following night.

Higgs and Stump weren’t deterred and took turns passing the megaphone back and forth to thank the crowd and update the game plan.

“We’re going to circle the building,” Higgs announced. “Then we’ll meet up in the cul-de-sac.”

The crowd circled the building, chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” And then some topicals, most notably — “Hey hey, ho ho, Bill and Dia have got to go,” referring to the aforementioned Bill Harrison and Dia Idleman, the nonprofit’s financial controller, who also functions as a de-facto human relations professional.

“If we don’t get it – shut it down!”

This reporter’s no optimist, but my odds were on their getting it.

To Diversity Richmond’s credit, there was no visual indication of a police presence, an oddity for a crowd of that size and auditory volume.

In the cul-de-sac, a streetlight-bathed terminus of asphalt where Cummings Drive meets the embankment that leads up to the highway, Higgs and Stump gave a debrief and sent the crowd on its way, emphasizing that the next day would be the “big one.” One of the striking workers went through the crowd handing out copies of the workers’ eight demands. (You can download a PDF copy and read the demands here.)

Jeremy Stump, one of the workers’ two chosen representatives, speaking to the crowd on Monday night. Photo by Kat McNeal.

“I want them to hear you through the walls tomorrow!” Stump exclaimed, profusely thanking the supporters.

The Demands

The first demand is for a starting rate of $16 an hour. None of the 10 hourly workers that participated in the demonstrations make this much, even an individual who has been at the store for over six years. Tellingly, employees reported that, upon hiring, they were forbidden to discuss their pay with each other. Though very common, that prohibition appears to conflict with the National Labor Relations Board’s statement regarding workers’ rights to undertake concerted action.

The second demand is for the store to hire more staff or allow current part-time workers to take on full-time positions. Josh Astles, the thrift store’s weekday truck driver, explained on Monday night that one of the primary safety issues the employees face has to do with understaffing. Scant staff means that when an employee is called on to lift a heavy item, like a piece of furniture, they often must do so alone, a situation that can lead to accidents and injuries.

Astles, who himself was suffering from an on-the-job injury at the time he spoke to this reporter (though he hastened to explain that his own accident was a matter of chance), described the stress and frustration of understaffing as self-perpetuating, because it creates a work environment in which existing workers have little reason to stay, leading to frequent turnover.

To plug the gaps in staffing, the store relies on both general volunteers and people fulfilling court-mandated community service hours, which Astles said can present its own problems.

“Not every community service person who comes in is able to do the kinds of things that are expected of the people who are actually hired,” Astles said, principally referring to heavy lifts. “We just don’t have enough people.”

The workers’ concerns regarding staffing and safety are such that Stump says they fear for the well-being of the people operating Diversity Thrift in the absence of regular staff. The store has been open every day of the work stoppage, despite all hourly non-supervisory employees having joined the strike as of Nov. 11.

Stump says the people currently operating the store are volunteers, three supervisors and two managers, one who was temporarily summoned out of retirement to deal with the lack of help. Rather than regard these individuals as scabs, the striking workers are worried for their safety, saying they’re handling a dangerous amount of work.

Three of the demands pertain to a workplace sexual harassment incident that involved alleged misconduct by managers toward a subordinate. A senior store manager was fired after an investigation by Harrison and financial controller Dia Idleman. An assistant store manager quit after learning that his subordinate intended to make a formal complaint regarding his conduct. Because the assistant manager left prior to the submission of the complaint, an investigation could not be carried out.

However, a short time later, the assistant store manager was rehired for a month-long position. That event is why the staff want additional workplace sexual harassment training and other provisions to protect workers from people who have been removed from the store for misconduct. This is also largely, but not solely, the reason for their demand that Harrison and Idleman be removed from leadership.

The Virginia Defender reached out to Harrison, but on Nov. 10 he declined to give an interview, saying he would pass the request to the president of the board, Luise “Cheezi” Farmer, who he said was fielding all media requests. As of Nov. 14, the Defender had not heard from Farmer.

The striking workers also want non-supervisory employees to have representation on the nonprofit’s board and, crucial in any labor action, the right to return to their jobs with back pay.

Tuesday, Nov. 9

The five-member executive committee that holds decision-making power for Diversity Richmond’s entire executive board was scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. This time, an even larger crowd began gathering around 5 p.m. in the Cummings Drive cul-de-sac. People selected signs from a pile or made some themselves on the spot. Slowly but surely, the crowd swelled past 100, then past 120. Again, no cops were in evidence, likely the result of management wisely declining to further raise community ire by calling in the police.

Supporters moving into position on Tuesday night. Photo by Kat McNeal.

A common conversational thread kept popping up in the throng: “I really like this place, it sucks that even they couldn’t do any better.”

Jamie Ford, the thrift store’s night-shift warehouse worker, said, “It’s a few people on the board we’re not happy with, but we all really love this place and believe that we can save it.”

As the meeting hour drew near, the striking workers briefed their supporters, cautioning them to stay on the sidewalk and tidy up after themselves. Then they led the crowd to the side of the building where the meeting would take place, handed off the megaphone and filed in. Their supporters cheered as though for departing heroes.

Then the wait began.

Supporters lining the sidewalk on Sherwood Ave. Photo by Kat McNeal.

For the first few hours, the crowd cycled fairly easily through chants, interspersed with wordless cheers bellowing across the short stretch of lawn toward the building’s windows, behind which the meeting was taking place.

“On strike, shut it down, Richmond is a people’s town!”

“Hey hey, ho ho, Bill and Dia have got to go!”

A group of five young people had brought some noise makers: bicycle horns, a hollow ram’s horn, chiming bells on strings, a cowbell. One of the five, Muni West, said they had themself been an employee of Diversity Thrift and that in the summer of 2020 all the hourly employees had drawn up a similar list of demands and sent it to the board in an anonymous email.

“Pretty much nothing changed,” they said.

Youth with noisemakers, former Diversity Thrift employee Muni West at far right. One member of the impromptu band declined to be photographed. Photo by Kat McNeal.

At nearly 8 p.m., the 11 striking workers emerged for a 10-minute break to raucous cheers and shouted questions.

“They’re listening to us,” Zoey Murray reported. “They seem open.”

“We can hear you in there,” Stump said. “They keep turning their heads to look at the windows when you cheer.”

They asked for water, which was swiftly provided, then vanished back into the building.

Just as the strikers returned to their work, so too did the crowd.

“Put some respect on my check!” they chanted, fast-paced and snappy.

More poignantly: “Be who we believe you are,” appealing to Diversity Richmond’s longstanding good reputation in the city.

It got colder. Some people headed home.

9 p.m. passed, and for a while those who remained dispensed with rhymes, trying out “Meet their demands!” shouted over and over again.

When things fell silent, with people getting tired or at a loss for what to chant next, they just cheered, or stomped rhythmically. Someone tapped a spoon on various objects, someone whistled, birdlike. The batteries for the megaphone died and were replaced. Someone passed around throat lozenges.

At 10:50 p.m., the crowd outside was down to 13 people, jangling keys and cheering wordlessly every few minutes to try to keep an auditory presence while getting close to the six-hour mark.

Then the side door opened.

The striking workers were greeted as returning champions, with supporters handing them water bottles and granola bars. Standing in the loose cluster of the remaining crowd, Stump reported that the executive committee planned to take their demands before the entire executive board in a private meeting on Nov. 10. In the meantime, the workers were guaranteed a number of concessions. Stump read them off into the revived megaphone:

  • Starting Dec. 1, base pay at Diversity Thrift will be $15 an hour.
  • Employees at Diversity Richmond will receive training about workplace sexual harassment.
  • Any person fired from Diversity for sexual harassment will never be permitted to work there again in any capacity.
  • Diversity Richmond will hire a Human Resources professional.
  • The nonprofit will solicit an independent investigation into its staffing, management, leadership and employment practices.

At this point, Stump noted that the investigation was needed because the board was only now hearing of the problems at the store.

“The president kept this an active secret,” he said, something like frustration or disbelief coloring his voice. “It’s sort of alarming that it was going on for this long and the only thing [the board] heard is that we are the best at what we do and the store has never been better.

“We are confident coming out of this meeting that change is coming, and change is coming soon,” Stump said.

A substantive, but not total, victory

Change did come. Late in the evening on Nov. 11, the workers received word that Diversity Richmond’s executive board had come to a decision.

In addition to the items promised on Nov. 9, all striking workers will be welcomed back – with back pay – on Nov. 15, and management will commit to filling staffing gaps as quickly as possible. Additionally, Diversity Richmond announced via the same statement on its website that Harrison retired on Nov. 10 and Idleman was placed on paid leave pending an investigation into workplace practices, unrelated to finances.

A Diversity Richmond board member, who wishes to remain anonymous, confirmed that the body was shocked to hear about the situation at the store — both because of the serious nature of the harassment case, and because the board had already believed many of the worker complaints to have been resolved. Just as former employee Muni West reported, the board did receive an email of worker grievances in summer 2020, and considered Bill Harrison to be addressing them, according to the board member.

The Virginia Defender spoke to Jeremy Stump about the outcome.

“We’re ecstatic,” he said. “Some of us started crying.”

But, he emphasized, the workers still plan to advocate for certain provisions in their next meeting with the board, on Nov. 15, such as the opportunity to transition to full time. This is now especially important because some of them face the prospect of losing Medicaid access because of their now-higher hourly wage, and will not be eligible for benefits through their jobs as part-time workers.

On Friday, Nov. 12, Aurora Higgs released a statement on behalf of the workers involved in the strike:

“While there are still many details that need to be addressed, we’d like to express our immense satisfaction with this decision as well as our gratitude and confidence in the Executive Committee in addition to the full Board of Directors. We are looking forward to continuing to work together to build a better Diversity Thrift that truly lives and embodies its values.

“As you might imagine we couldn’t be more excited and we have many supporters in the community who are also eagerly awaiting to return and support Diversity Richmond. We completely understand that there will be some growing pains in creating a new ‘normal’ but the staff commit to working with the Board to making the organization its best self.”

The Richmond IWW organized a fundraiser for the Diversity Thrift workers to help them defray costs incurred by the strike, which you can see here. Though there is now the promise of back pay, they’re keeping the fund up to defray other costs incurred, with an explanatory note to indicate the changed situation.

The workers expect to meet with the executive board again on Monday, Nov. 15.

Categories: Between Issues, Our Working Lives

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2 replies »

  1. Great to read about the workers getting some of their demands met! The community support was outstanding. Looking forward to reading that workers will be able to transition to full-time work with benefits.

    Like

  2. Thank you Defender for publishing this article. I have been a supporter and patron since Diversity’s inception, however, was not aware of this situation. Hopefully the workers will continue their protests until fairness is achieved.

    Like

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