Mission-driven and worker-driven: Inside the wave of nonprofit organizing

Originally published in Strikewave on May 28, 2020.
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In April, six nonprofits based in the nation’s capital — ranging from the National Women’s Law Center and J Street, to Friends of the Earth and Groundwork Collaborative — announced their plans to unionize with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), a D.C.-based affiliate of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees (IFPTE). Meanwhile, workers at the ACLU of Northern California were laying the groundwork for their own unionization drive, which they announced at the beginning of May. When the vaunted civil liberties organization declined to voluntarily recognize its workers, they quickly filed for an NLRB election.

“A lot of these campaigns were going on before this whole pandemic, but I think the uncertainty has really brought into clear relief the need for a collective voice in both things like safety and PPE when we eventually come back to the workplace, and how funding cuts and all that is going to be dealt with,” said Paul Thurston, the organizing director for IFPTE. “It’s just getting people to the realization that you’re better off in an uncertain situation when you have the ability to advocate for yourself as opposed to whatever your boss dictates.”

Nonprofit workers organizing — and even striking — is not new. Labor unions like AFSCME and SEIU have long seen opportunity for growth in the nonprofit sector, a sector which expanded significantly in the second half of the twentieth century with a predominantly female and highly-educated workforce. Unions even once viewed organizing nonprofits as a central way to slow the privatization of public services; this was in part because they thought if wages went up in nonprofits then public entities might be less motivated to contract out. “In general that hasn’t really happened because nonprofit wages — union or not — haven’t kept pace with government wages,” said Jan Masoaka, the CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits. “And the other motivating factor for contracting — having greater control to hire and fire — has become more important to employers.”

As of 2017, according to federal labor statistics, there were nearly 12.5 million nonprofit workers  across the U.S, working in a range of organizations from hospitals and charter schools, to direct-service providers and museums, to advocacy groups and research institutions. The government does not track union density among nonprofits specifically. But just as there’s been recent momentum for new organizing in sectors like digital media and tech, the college-educated, millennial workforce toiling at nonprofits have taken notice, and inspiration.

“Having done this work for thirty years, I can say the workers we’ve been in contact with recently have more confidence in standing up for what’s right, and demanding their working conditions reflect the values of their own agencies,” said Cindy Schu, the organizing director for Nonprofit Employees United (NEU), an affiliate of the Office and Professional Employees International Union. “I do think a lot of it is coming from an increase in activism among younger workers who are devoted to social change.” In the last six months, Schu’s union has organized five new nonprofits — including a food bank in San Francisco, an organization supporting at risk-homeless LGBTQ youth in Little Rock, and another homeless youth service provider in Seattle. They represent “many dozens” of nonprofits, she said.

Thurston said it’s “been incredible” to see how many nonprofit workers reach directly out to their union, interested in organizing their workplaces to make them more sustainable. “You get into nonprofit work because you’re ideologically-driven, but all of these big nonprofit hubs are in extremely expensive cities and young people are not being given the resources or say in the organization for that sacrifice to make sense,” he said. “The outreach is, ‘I don’t want to quit my job, I love my job, and I want it to be better.’”

Both the NPEU and NEU went through rebrands a few years ago, updating their names so nonprofit employees could more clearly grasp who it is they represent. It appears to be working: the NPEU alone has more than doubled its size from 13 units a year ago to 27 today.

“I think people are more conscious of themselves as workers, and have also realized in the larger economic scheme of things that nonprofits are not special,” said Kayla Blado, the president of NPEU and the director of media relations at the Economic Policy Institute. “They’re still working at a job, they deserve to get paid, and frankly a lot of them are having bad experiences at nonprofits, which purport to be progressive and care about certain issues but the day-to-day can be really difficult and workers face discrimination.”

Organizing nonprofits often requires different tactics than organizing for-profit companies. Unlike at a fast food corporation, or Amazon, where workers can rally around principles of corporate greed and sky-high profits, many nonprofit workers generally like their jobs, are aware of funding constraints, and want to avoid bringing too much negative attention to their organization.

“It requires a little bit of massaging the messaging to fit the demographic of the folks, which extends to the public-facing campaigns,” said Thurston. “At Kaiser or a power company or Boeing, there’s no problem going ablaze through the media to say we’re doing this, and here’s all the anti-union stuff Boeing is doing. With nonprofits, any kind of bad press could hurt their organization and that’s not really what they want.”

Jeff Farmer, the organizing director at the Teamsters, which represents about 20,000 nonprofit workers, said over the years he’s emphasized to nonprofit staff that unions don’t have to mean an inherently adversarial relationship. “You don’t have to be anti-organization, or anti-employer, to be pro-union,” he said. “You just still want a voice, weeks of vacation, and to be treated like an adult.”

The main reasons cited for organizing nonprofits are often not primarily financial, but are more about increasing transparency, security, and participatory decision making. “People who work in nonprofits understand the economy is precarious and they know even if my job is good it’s not stable,” said Stephanie Luce, a professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.

Workers tend to frame their campaigns around making their organizations stronger, and more capable of preventing costly staff burn-out. Some policies NPEU workers have negotiated for, said Blado, include mandatory racial equity training, standardized pay-scales and tuition reimbursement, good parental leave, retirement accounts, and seats for workers on the board.  “No one is trying to force their workplace to go under for any reason,” she said. “We just want to strengthen the mission of the organization.”

But these demands don’t always sit well with nonprofit management, many of whom see themselves as very progressive — or at least want to be perceived as such. Two decades ago, Masoaka, the now-CEO of California Association of Nonprofits, co-led a project for the Aspen Institute to study how nonprofits have been experiencing the surge in unionization. Masoaka and her colleague interviewed 40 nonprofit executives, trustees, and staff in San Francisco and New York, and found the campaigns can prove particularly contentious, because both nonprofit workers and their employers often have strong emotional investments in their work, and the progressive bona fides of the employers are directly challenged.

Boss resistance generally looks different than the more brazen union-busting tactics from the corporate sector. More common, workers said, is it takes the form of guilt tripping, with management stressing that collective bargaining could mean cuts to staffing, programming, and therefore less services available for their vulnerable clients. Nonprofits are also often dependent on government funding and private foundation support — which managers point out can come with strings that prevent dollars from going to the types of demands workers are making at the bargaining table.

Sometimes managers even worry that donors will be upset by the prospect of a union, if that means donor contributions go less far to serving low-income and vulnerable people. “What we usually say to that is turnover is extremely expensive, and when workers leave, the quality of work goes down,” said Blado, who adds that in her experience many donors have been happy to see their organizations walking the progressive walk.

Paternalistic attitudes from nonprofit employers are also not uncommon, according to organizers. “They’ll say they’re not opposed to labor philosophically, but when their power is challenged it’s a really different story,” said Schu of the NEU. “I’ve seen a patronizing approach where the manager will say, ‘we’re all in this together, we’re a nonprofit and the work itself should be a reward,” added Farmer, of the Teamsters.

As for whether a nonprofit employer is more likely to voluntarily recognize their workers’ union than a for-profit — it depends. There’s certainly more pressure to do so, especially if the threat of bad press awaits. Paul Reilly, who has worked for the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild since 2001, says the nonprofits his union has represented have been more likely to do voluntary recognition. (Disclosure: In 2017, I helped organize The American Prospect, a nonprofit, with the Washington-Baltimore News Guild. Management did voluntarily recognize us.) And nearly all the recent NPEU shops were also voluntarily recognized. Still Schu said in her experience it’s been more common for nonprofits to go through an NLRB election, though they always try and seek voluntary recognition first.

One area of nonprofit organizing that is genuinely new is political campaigns. The idea has been long discussed among campaign staffers, but because campaign work is so short-term, many established unions didn’t see the investment as feasible. Some unions also thought it could be a conflict-of-interest, because they endorse candidates and questioned whether they could represent the workers of a candidate they may or may not endorse.

“It’s something people have always talked about at drinks after work but no one really does,” said Meg Reilly, the president of the Campaign Workers Guild, which she co-founded in 2017. “We were told no by plenty of unions, so finally we just started our own.”

The Campaign Workers Guild was so successful in the 2018 cycle, representing about 40 campaigns, that now larger unions have hopped on the bandwagon, especially eager to represent the major Democratic presidential candidates. In the 2020 cycle, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers represented Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg’s campaign staff, the United Food & Commercial Workers Union represented Bernie Sanders’s staff, and the Teamsters represented Joe Biden’s. The Biden campaign contract, ratified in early May, includes overtime pay, 100 percent employer-paid health insurance, a six-day workweek, and a union grievance procedure.

The campaigns the Campaign Workers Guild have represented have only gotten voluntary recognition, and Reilly says the pressure is particularly intense on candidates to recognize their workers’ union, because the timelines are so short and the threat of being labeled a union-buster can be such a political nightmare for a Democratic politician. (The Campaign Workers Guild is nonpartisan but has not represented any Republican campaigns to date.)

While that pressure has been helpful, Reilly acknowledges the short timeline can sometimes serve as an obstacle too, since many people join campaigns for what they understand upfront to be exhausting sprints. “Sometimes people resist a union because they want their candidate to win, that’s why they’re working on the race, and so anything they feel could jeopardize that goal they say is not worth it to them,” she said. “Permanent organizations are different, the pressure levers are different. They may be strapped in for a longer fight but also have more time to work and build a stronger organization.”

Nonprofit workers, unionized or not, are bracing for a turbulent time as the economic recession sinks deeper from the coronavirus. Luce, from the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, said the research has been “somewhat mixed” about how unions fare during a downturn. High unemployment definitely makes it harder for workers to unionize, she said, but sometimes unionization picks up when employees are faced with particularly bad working conditions and unusually stressful expectations.

“The pandemic has certainly hit many of our members hard,” said Schu. “We have members who work in shelters, on the streets, we represent really fragile folks and the services are going to be needed now more than ever.”

One goal for nonprofit unions amid the pandemic, Blado said, is figuring out how to leverage their positions to raise standards for essential workers who might be cleaning their offices, guarding security for their buildings, or simply not able to work remotely.

“Several of our units have bargained with management over ensuring there’s PPE and hazard pay,” said Blado. “We want to figure out how our nonprofit workers who are more privileged and fortunate can support essential workers and show solidarity.” On their list-serves, she added, NPEU has been mobilizing for donations and mutual aid.

Nonprofits are already bracing for money to dry up in the coming year. Reilly of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild said for those nonprofits that rely primarily on government funding, at least budgets for this fiscal year are already locked in. Next year, he said, is when things could start getting really tough.

“We’re going to see less foundation funding, less government funds, fewer personal donations, less in fees-for-service,” said Masaoka, noting that 37 percent of funding for nonprofits comes from fees-for-service like preschool tuition. “I’ve been wondering how unions are going to fare, and it could go either way.”

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