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Austin Pets Alive workers vote to unionize, creating the largest animal shelter union in the U.S.

A photo of a small orange kitten in a kennel at an Austin Pets Alive facility.
Alyssa Olvera
KUT News
Austin Pets Alive workers voted to unionize on Friday. Nearly 200 workers will be represented.

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Workers at local animal shelter Austin Pets Alive voted to unionize on Friday after almost a year of organizing. The union will support nearly 200 employees, making it the largest animal shelter union in the country, according to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the union representing APA staff.

APA employees say they are fighting to secure a contract with better pay and benefits, more work-life balance and newer equipment for the animals.

Morty Gillum, who works with cat placement at APA, said unionizing will ultimately improve the lives of the animals at the shelter.

“Our voice isn’t listened to when we are the ones who are giving the care to animals every day,” Gillum said. “Winning this election really gives us a chance to give the animals the voice and the advocation they need for the care they need.”

APA workers started organizing in summer 2023 with the creation of Austin Pets Allied Workers, or APAW. Last week was the first successful attempt to unionize after years of trying, said Ryan Martinez, a dog behavior trainer for APA.

Martinez said better staffing policies would mean dogs get more play time and better training, and staffers would have more time to focus on the mental and emotional well-being of each animal.

“The way that our shelter works is that we take dogs from other shelters. And often times these are dogs that would otherwise be left behind in some way or likely euthanized,” Martinez said. “So we’re taking in dogs all the time, and a lot of these dogs aren’t necessarily getting the resources we know we are capable of.”

Both Martinez and Gillum said more staff positions are necessary and would also help give each pet the social media visibility needed to get adopted.

The shelter has imposed an on again off again hiring freeze on vacant positions, leading employees to routinely work overtime in an often overcrowded shelter, Gillum said.

“We stay sometimes well past our shift. I’ve seen [care teams] stay a couple hours past their shifts, and they’re just so burnt out,” Gillum said. “It’s so hard to pour from an empty cup.”

In a statement, APA President and CEO Ellen Jefferson called the vote to unionize “historic.”

“APA recognizes and respects the outcome of the election and will fully comply with all of our obligations under the law,” Jefferson said. “The mission and vision of our organization is, and always has been, to serve the lives of the pets that need us most and the people that help them.”

Despite the vote, APA workers have a long road ahead. Because Texas is a “right to work” state, APA workers might have more difficulty getting everything they want out of a contract.

In a “right-to-work” state, employees can choose whether or not they want to join a union, but once the union is certified it represents every employee in a union-covered position, even those who choose not to be members and don’t pay dues. As KUT has previously reported, “this is thought to weaken a union's power because it doesn't always receive every employee's full support.”

APA management and the union have not begun negotiating a contract; a process which could take weeks to months.

“We love our shelter and we love our animals,” Martinez said. “We wouldn’t be doing this otherwise.”

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