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Nonprofit Workers Join the Movement to Unionize

Increasing numbers of people in mission- and passion-driven fields are waking up to the fact that they are, despite the trappings of middle-class-ness, still workers doing a job.

Nonprofit managers are caught between the desires of funders—whose funds come from the very exploitation that the nonprofit may be trying to combat—and their own staff. (Photo: @Teamsters/Twitter)

Nonprofit managers are caught between the desires of funders—whose funds come from the very exploitation that the nonprofit may be trying to combat—and their own staff. (Photo: @Teamsters/Twitter)

The past few years have seen a rash of union victories in supposedly white-collar workplaces, from prestige publications to art museums to nonprofit think tanks and service organizations. Workers, particularly young workers, in these mission- and passion-driven fields are waking up to the fact that they are, despite the trappings of middle-class-ness, still workers doing a job. And their workplaces, despite the sheen of cultural cachet or do-gooder self-sacrifice, could be vastly improved by a change in the balance of power toward the people who do the work. 

Last week, we learned that workers at the National Center for Transgender Equality filed a complaint against their employer for retaliation. NCTE staff had asked for voluntary recognition of their union in November 2018, amid internal issues at the organization, an increasing onslaught against trans people’s rights from the Trump Administration, and an emboldened far right street movement. The recognition was never formally granted, and last August the staff held a walkout, protesting the firing of a staffer of color.

This, the would-be bargaining unit argued, was part of a pattern of unequal treatment of workers of color at the organization. The Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU) filed its complaint after a buyout package was offered to all staff, in an apparent effort  to clear out the pro-union staff.

The organization now has just a handful of employees left. Its executive director, Mara Keisling, said in a statement:  “We have asked our staff to embrace a new chapter at NCTE, but we didn’t want anyone to feel pressured into this decision. We offered a severance package meant to give those who decide this next chapter is not for them the stability to make that decision.”

But it was probably not the new chapter that NCTE workers wanted. The union’s press release notes, “Ironically, organizing a union and negotiating a contract that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity is the only way for transgender workers to have explicit legal protections in the workplace in over half the country.

Meanwhile, another prominent nonprofit, the Southern Poverty Law Center, is refusing to voluntarily recognize its own staff union. Earlier this year, co-founder Morris Dees and president Richard Cohen left the organization after charges of racism and sexual harassment; it is perhaps unsurprising that the remaining staff sought union protections. Those employees were disappointed in the SPLC’s hiring of a prominent anti-union law firm to deal with the union drive, and found wanting its statement that “Our support for unions and, more importantly, all voices being heard and the right to vote, drive us toward an election and voting process.”

Statements like this are common responses to union drives, including at mission-driven organizations like the SPLC. Indeed, the leadership at NCTE made a similar statement—claiming to support workers’ right to organize, but somehow managing to draw out the process for more than a year.

As my colleague Michelle Chen noted on a recent episode of our podcast Belabored, “Nonprofit is a legal and financial designation, it’s not a stamp of ethical quality.” In that same episode, Kayla Blado, president of the NPEU and a staffer at the Economic Policy Institute, explains in an interview that nonprofit workers are often willing to work harder and longer in the service of the mission, and that their drive to organize is often coming from that same place of commitment to that mission. 

“They don’t want to jump ship,” she says, if the working conditions leave something to be desired, They want to stay and make the workplace better.

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But employees having rights and being willing to enforce them is often seen as counter to the mission of the nonprofits for which they work. Employees should, the implication goes, put their heads down and commit to the organization no matter what conditions they’re handed, because the mission is more important than their own abilities to get by. 

“The pressure for nonprofits to demonstrate their effectiveness through reductive measures—How much did you cut overhead? Are your programs showing enough quantifiable progress?—can lead to compartmentalized and short-sighted approaches to social justice,” says  Amy Schiller, a political scientist who studies philanthropy and has worked in the nonprofit sector.

As a result, fundraising practices for progressive organizations have come to resemble those of financial investment, and that means a single-minded focus on results. “Staff power to negotiate doesn’t show up in the annual reports, as it were,” Schiller says.

Nonprofit managers are caught between the desires of funders—whose funds come from the very exploitation that the nonprofit may be trying to combat—and their own staff. Those funders may not be asking for dividend payments, but their demands nonetheless wind up squeezing workers more.

Nonprofits do not exist outside of the capitalist system even if they are, officially, legally, not creating profits. Their working conditions are often all too similar to those at for-profit organizations

Nonprofits stretch to cover the holes in an already-shredded social safety net. As Ramsin Canon wrote in Jacobin, they are there to mop up the mess capitalism creates by taking excess capital from the wealthy and turning it into “services to prevent the experience of exploitation from becoming too severe.”

In other words, they do not exist outside of the capitalist system even if they are, officially, legally, not creating profits. Their working conditions are often all too similar to those at for-profit organizations. (This article will have to leave aside the questions of so-called “public benefit corporations” like Kickstarter, which have their own trail of union-busting accusations.)

Like the workers in media and art museums, then, nonprofit employees might have advanced degrees and office jobs, but in practice they are still living the social relation that is class in America and in the world. The boss almost never wants to give up power, even if, on paper, her job is to make the world a fairer place.

And so, Kayla Blado says, “as the nonprofit sector grows and as nonprofit workers gain this class consciousness and realize that they are workers like everyone else, I think we’re going to have our work cut out for us because a lot of nonprofit workers are interested in joining a union.”

Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, covering labor, economic justice, social movements, politics, gender, and pop culture. She is the author of the book, Necessary Trouble: America's New Radicals (Nation Books/2016). Follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.

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