Progressives in the streets, union-busters in the sheets

Marianne Garneau looks at union-busting in social justice organizations.

In the past few weeks, we’ve seen multiple headlines about social justice advocacy groups and other progressive nonprofits resisting their workers’ attempts to organize. The tactics range from hiring anti-union law firms and holding “captive audience” staff meetings challenging the need for a union, to ruthless responses like mass layoffs.

Basically, we’re witnessing the same anti-union playbook that we’re used to in the corporate or for-profit sector, applied within organizations that claim to have a mandate to actively fight for good. These organizations will even tout their support for unions and partnerships with them, and yet having one in-house, representing their own workers, is apparently intolerable.

We’ve said before on this site that a boss is a boss is a boss. Managers want to control wages and workflow, and any pushback against that will unleash a power struggle. But it’s worth digging into the particular form this takes at nonprofits: why workers at these ostensibly progressive institutions feel the need to organize, and why they face so much resistance.

This isn’t just about calling out the hypocrisy of so-called progressives. It’s about preparing nonprofit sector workers, who are often young and idealistic and inexperienced at asserting their rights, for what they might face from these employers, and inoculating them against the bosses’ attempts to convince them they don’t need or deserve a union.

Workers go to work for these organizations thinking they can do good, and assuming they will be treated well by employers committed to social justice. But it turns out that good treatment for workers is not a matter of philosophical commitment to progressive political values, but a matter of how power is distributed in the workplace.

Why these workers need unions

The issues that workers at social justice nonprofits struggle with are similar to those at any other workplace: overwork, insecurity, low pay, unsafe working conditions, unequal treatment, and so on.

At Housing Works in New York, which helps AIDS and HIV-affected people with everything from housing to health care, Dinah (not her real name) says that case workers such as herself barely make above the minimum wage, while juggling significant workload with little support. “There’s this vicious cycle where caseworkers leave, new ones come on, sometimes don’t stay for long, likewise with supervisors – I’ve had six over the last eight months. It’s hard to do your job when you don’t have support. As a case worker, I need a consistent supervisor to do my work well.” There is no formal training program for new staff, who “have to be educated about New York City resources, populations of chronic health conditions, housing policy, housing vouchers — there’s just a whole slew of things.” Workers rely on guidance and mentorship from supervisors, but the turnover among supervisors creates disruptions in that process.

Turnover also affects quality and continuity of care for clients, which rebounds on workers: “there are fewer providers at any given time, and people may not be able to get appointments until two or three months down the line. They get frustrated, and that manifests in ways that intimidate workers.” Management has been asked to implement policies to make workers safer, like security protocols for crisis situations, or allowing case workers to do fieldwork in pairs. But, Dinah says, “They shrug it off by saying ‘that’s just the population we serve.’” In other words, management projects its own institutional failings onto the vulnerable people they’re supposed to help, as a way of justifying unsafe working conditions for employees.

Staff are organizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). They see their fight to improve conditions for themselves as simultaneously a fight to serve people better. “You can’t deliver the care clients deserve if you don’t have the time to pay attention to each one. It’s akin to classroom size for teachers,” says Dinah.

It’s often the case that the working conditions employees struggle with also affect the organization’s ability to carry out its mission. Staff at Lakeshore Legal Aid in Michigan, which provides free legal help to low-income people in matters like protection from domestic violence and eviction, are organizing with the National Organization of Legal Services Workers, part of the UAW. Marie DeFer, a staff attorney who has been part of the union drive, says that workers want “fair application of personnel policies,” and job security instead of at-will employment. Working at a progressive organization is apparently no guarantee of being treated fairly or equitably — staff at Lakeshore were surprised at the discrepancies they discovered in salaries. They’re also fighting for pay equity.

For them, too, the union fight is also about carrying out the organization’s mission. “We’ve had a lot of staff turnover. And when staff leave, we’re short-staffed, and we turn away dozens of people every week we can’t help.” She says they’re organizing “to improve workplace conditions to better serve our clients.”

Workers at progressive nonprofits are on the front lines. They know whether the target population is being served well, whether the programs are helping, whether needs are getting met, whether the advocacy is working. However, when they raise concerns to management, they are often rebuffed, if not disciplined. “Staff wish they could have candid conversations about workload and the cases we take, and not be fearful of getting terminated,” says DeFer. Without a union, “We had no grievance procedure, so there was no mechanism for staff to voice concerns. At-will employment really stifles communication on how to improve the workplace.”

Matthew Denney, a staff attorney with Disability Rights Oregon in Portland, was part of an organizing effort there, also with the NOLSW, until he was recently let go (more on that later). He says that staff at the advocacy group, which helps individuals with disabilities access care and special programs and litigates on their behalf, began organizing in March when a new executive director came on board. They were concerned about changes in working conditions over the years, and the fact that policy changes would be handed down without any notice. “People would get yelled at for not following procedures we didn’t know existed,” he recalls. They were also – ironically – denied disability accommodations for themselves “without any real process,” he says. “That was one of the things I did, as an attorney covering employment issues – help people get reasonable accommodation in employment.” The organization’s philosophical commitment to advocating for the disabled apparently did not extend to its own staff.

In fact, the progressive mission of a nonprofit organization can sometimes even be leveraged against workers to dismiss their concerns. Greg, an IWW organizer in Seattle, recalls a campaign among Acorn canvassers in 2001. One of the issues workers had was sexual harassment and even assault while canvassing. “It was all women in the shop,” Greg says, “mostly young, mostly white, college-educated. And the employer played the whole white, class guilt thing on them.” When canvassers said they wanted to canvass in pairs for safety, “they were told ‘you’re racist, you just don’t want to go into poor, people-of-color, neighborhoods.’ And it was like, ‘well there was that time I knocked on a door and a guy dragged me into his house and tried to kiss me.’”

Like workers elsewhere, nonprofit workers get little traction when raising concerns directly to management — feedback is often treated as insubordination. Hence the turn to unions.

Checking progressive politics at the door

Certainly, progressive nonprofits say that they appreciate unions and respect their workers’ right to organize. In fact, unlike the corporate sector, they often brag about their partnerships with unions and how much they “look forward” to bargaining with their employees.

When workers at the National Center for Transgender Equality went public with the National Professional Employees’ Union, Executive Director Mara Keisling said “My board is unanimously pro-labor, and we want to get this done if they want it” – before eventually pushing out nearly every employee in the unit. Once she had whittled the 23-person organization down to seven managerial and confidential (e.g. HR) staff, she confidently asserted in retrospect that “We could not have expressed in a more heartfelt way that we are pro-union” but now it was “time to get back to the work that trans people really, desperately, need us to do.”

There is nearly as much love for unions at Housing Works, where CEO Charles King affirmed that “We have always been supportive of our employees’ efforts to advocate for themselves, our programs, and our constituency” and that “We respect the right of our employees to engage in any lawful labor action, and we have committed to remaining neutral in this process” – while refusing to sign a neutrality agreement with the RWDSU. Management has retained Seyfarth Shaw, a union-busting law firm, which is running what they call a “positivity campaign” assuring workers that conditions are great and a union is unnecessary. They put on town halls, asking workers how safe they feel but stacking respondents with managers and HR personnel. The executive has circulated links to anti-union websites to managers, and managers have told workers they are ineligible for union membership, or polled them about whether they were planning on participating in a walkout – totally unnecessary, caseworker Dinah says, because the union had given management ten days’ notice as a courtesy, so they could ensure there was enough coverage on sites. King insists that a “retail” union is not right for his workers – although RWDSU has organized at nonprofits before — and besides, Housing Works has an open door policy. But as Dinah points out, “it’s not a level playing field.” And when they have sent delegations of workers to talk to management, they have been stonewalled.

Upon finding out his staff were organizing, the Executive Director of Lakeshore Legal Aid, William (“Bill”) Knight, Jr. told staff in a captive audience meeting how deep his union roots went — how his whole family had been in unions, his grandfather, his father, his other relatives still now. He even still receives checks from a relative’s union benefits… but they aren’t right for his staff. “He had no real reasons why,” says DeFer, who notes that the speech backfired and strengthened support for the union. Knight had already planned to step down from the organization, but felt the need to work against the organizing effort on his way out the door.

DeFer notes that “Lakeshore has events at union halls, we give legal presentations to union groups, we know several of the [Lakeshore] executive are supportive of various labor organizations, from personal fundraising to their political beliefs.” For this reason, she says, workers were “shocked and disheartened” when the management hired an anti-union attorney to fend off the organizing and represent Lakeshore in bargaining — Leonard Givens from Miller Canfield represented scab workers during the Detroit Free Press strike in the 1990s. Lakeshore refused to voluntarily recognize the union, but workers won their NLRB certification in July.

Progressive nonprofits seem to say “Unions are great, just not for us.” This kind of dissembling is the rule rather than the exception.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, after it was asked to recognize its staff’s union with the NewsGuild (CWA), sent a letter to employees in which it crowed about its “long history of partnering with unions in our legal work,” and affirmed that “unions reflect values that are in our DNA.” It also retained an anti-union law firm and refused to grant recognition, even though “a supermajority of bargaining unit-eligible staff signed union authorization cards,” according to an email to Organizing Work from the SPLC Union Organizing Committee. Management had good reason for that refusal, they assured staff: they wanted a vote among workers (it’s not clear why the same could not be accomplished by counting union authorization cards), out of concern that “There are employees at SPLC, mostly women of color and lower wage workers who are often left out or often ‘spoken for’ instead of engaged and given space for their own agency.” This is the same organization that made multiple headlines earlier this year for having an extremely segregated and racially hierarchized staff, with almost all of the clerical staff black, and almost all of the professional staff white.

In fact, workers are organizing in part because of the “high attrition of talented colleagues, most notably people of color and women of color,” according to the Organizing Committee. No longer content to rely on management to do the right thing, they want a union “to make sure that our workplace embodies the same principles of justice, equity, and diversity that we advance in the work we do in our communities.” The SPLC says it aims “to ensure that the promise of the civil rights movement [becomes] a reality for all,” but as the workers point out, “workers’ rights are human rights,” and “a union will help uphold and protect those rights. This effort is particularly important in the Deep South, where a surplus of right-to-work laws and a shortage of collective bargaining power puts workers’ rights at risk every day.” Denouncing revanchist Southern politics is the SPLC’s stock and trade, but it was unable to find the resources to desegregate its own workforce. Workers are right that the way to do that is with a union, but the SPLC isn’t interested in pushing back against that Southern trend either.

It’s common to see nonprofits refusing voluntary recognition of a union, no matter how many workers have signed up. This happened at Disability Rights Oregon, where 14 of 17 workers had taken out union cards. Snubbed by management, workers won their union through an NLRB election. The employer, now assured that their workers indeed overwhelmingly supported the union, immediately cleaned house.

The story is worth recounting in detail, as the union-busting efforts border on sadism.

When workers sat down to negotiate with the employer a few weeks after their successful election, they were abruptly informed that they would be negotiating their own layoffs. Suddenly citing a budget deficit (this had not been mentioned in previous months, says Denney, the former staff attorney), the employer indicated they would need to eliminate staff positions over the coming year. Showing their compassion, however, management also said that workers could create their own list of volunteers for the layoffs.

Three workers stepped forward, in the hopes of saving their colleagues’ jobs. The union and employer then negotiated terms: how much advance notice the union and individual workers would receive, as well as severance pay.

The moment those terms were negotiated, the employer pulled the trigger on eight layoffs — seven union members and one manager. They even opted to furlough workers immediately rather than allowing them to work during their paid notice period – after all, in a budget crisis, why continue the important work of serving the disabled community? The kicker is that they justified the high number of layoffs by citing the notice period and severance pay the union had negotiated!

Down so much staff, the center announced a month-long hiatus on accepting new clients or work.

Denney observes that “they targeted the people who were more involved with the union and more active.” The bargaining team was decimated, as four of its six members were laid off, forcing workers to scramble to assemble a new one. Perhaps the masterstroke of the union-busting is that it might be difficult to claim retaliation in an Unfair Labor Practice complaint, since some of the layoffs were “voluntary.”

Workers at Lakeshore Legal Aid faced an eerily similar opening salvo from the employer. “We got our election results in July,” says DeFeo, “and two weeks later we got an emergency email from their attorney that they needed to lay off seven people at end of year because of budget issues.” Workers set up an ad hoc committee for emergency bargaining, and negotiated down to only one worker taking a voluntary layoff, while also giving up a few concessions, on the number of days that get paid out upon termination, and on training expenses.

All the rest of the usual union-busting tactics are on display at nonprofits. Kayla Blado, president of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union which is organizing workers at the National Transgender Center for Equality, says that since being asked for voluntary recognition in 2018, the employer has slow-walked the union, disputing who should be in the bargaining unit, dragging out the recognition process, terminating workers, “and then meanwhile the work environment became increasingly more toxic.” Fed up, workers walked out in August, and asked for a change in leadership. Instead, they were told that anyone not on board with management could leave. Workers were offered a buyout, ultimately negotiated to include ten weeks’ severance, which they took. “It was ‘voluntary,’” says Blado, “but people sort of had no choice… Management ended up saying, ‘either you’re with us or you’re not.’”

Blado notes what a hardship this is “at the end of the year, when it’s hard to get hired, plus a lot of the staff is trans, and according to the Center’s own stats, trans people face higher discrimination in the first place.” In fact, one might say that’s exactly why they needed a union — “trans workers do not have any federal employment protections. In 27 states, workers do not have any protections against being discriminated against for being trans. Ironically, having a union contract is probably the only way you can protect that right for trans workers at their own workplace.” An organization that claims to advocate for protections for trans workers couldn’t implement them under its own roof.

Here again we really see the limits of the progressive nonprofit model’s ability to advance its own social justice politics. Their commitment to principles can’t even be leveraged in-house.

The ultimate act of union avoidance is closing the shop entirely. In Detroit, Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) ran a training restaurant called Colors, meant to train workers in food handling and fine dining service to help them secure employment in the restaurant industry. A former ROC organizer, Jean-Carl Elliott (not his real name), relates that when the staff of the restaurant signed union cards, ROC abruptly and immediately shut it down, suspending the training program entirely. When questioned about this, they cited budget issues. They finally opened the restaurant three months later, after significant pressure, and once the card-signing staff had all moved on.

At Acorn in Seattle in 2001 as well, the entire staff was laid off. Initially, scabs were brought in from the Portland office, but eventually the Seattle office was simply closed.

What is going on?

Several of the nonprofit workers I spoke to (not all are named in this article), at one point in the conversation, veered into darker territory. As one of them put it, “Sometimes I think my job is a scam.” Specifically, they felt uneasy about the role they played as a kind of intermediary in an organization meant to capture foundation or government dollars while tallying acts of service, be it in the form of cases opened, claims initiated, or campaigns brought. These individuals had the vague impression that the work they were doing – not all of it, of course, but in some respect – was deeply subordinate to the cycle of chasing funding and reporting to donors. For example, one former legal aid worker I spoke to said he felt that his organization was “padding caseload, so they [could] present those numbers to funders.” Quite often, this takes the form of an organizational imperative towards growth, the justification for which seems hard to pin down.

Elliott, the former ROC organizer, described the natural way an organization’s mission can inflate:

So in 2007, ROC Michigan decides that they want to teach workers their rights and to help with organizing. They might find a grant that would cover part of an organizer’s salary, but that’s it. You’ll need to find another grant to fund an office for the organizer to work out of. But there aren’t grants for just rent, so you need to have a program. So you start offering hospitality trainings. But then you need to show that your trainings are legit, so you need a workforce development specialist. That person needs a salary. Turns out the trainings are okay but it’s all theoretical and no practicum. So you open a restaurant. Now you need someone who knows how to run a restaurant. And it just keeps ballooning from there.

Another worker, at another nonprofit, puts it this way: “The more offices, the more donors, grants, tax exemptions, and billing of government programs.”

Greg, the Acorn organizer, points out that a lot of nonprofit organizations are chasing the same foundation dollars or government grants. If you are staying pat while other organizations are growing and expanding, you will be edged out as donors will be inclined to give to them instead. “The nonprofit element is a ruse,” said another former organizer with experience in the nonprofit sector. These organizations are “selling to their funders. No one wants to buy a thing that’s just limping along doing the same old. Buyers want success, and growth is a metric of success.”

The full scope of this issue is beyond the present article, but it speaks to the problems, like high workload, that nonprofit workers face – and to the resistance they encounter when organizing. Paying workers more and treating them better does nothing to serve the goal of securing funding. Instead, the pressure is to hire more staff with less money and make them do more. Likewise, listening to frontline workers about how to better serve the community does nothing to help growth, and may even cut against it (you can either rack up clients or you can serve each one more thoroughly). Expansion often comes at the expense of existing programs, as resources are reassigned to prioritize getting a toehold elsewhere. As G DeJunz has pointed out on this site, what ultimately matters with foundation-funded organizations is not even so much results, but the impression of results. The metrics in an annual report can hide a lot of ineffective do-gooderism – to the chagrin of the frontline workers.

Zakk Flash, a former director at a Habitat for Humanity chapter and programs coordinator for homeless services in Oklahoma, describes what this has looked like in his experience:

Executive directors are always looking for more funding sources and that means having more success stories to turn over to potential donors — without knowing what constitutes success, which metrics matter, and whether the model being used fits into the framework the funder already has in mind.

You can have fantastic qualitative success, but the people with the money want quantitative data. They know numbers – or think they do. I can work with a client suffering from homelessness, addiction, intense trauma, and get them stably housed, integrated into services, and so on… a success, by most counts (especially to the now housed person). But funding will be removed from the next cycle because they want numbers, dollar signs, on economic impact.

Making staff and even clients happy becomes of incidental interest to an executive whose primary goal is, and must be, expansion. It’s probably worth noting that executives at nonprofits often pay themselves six-figure salaries, and that there is a bit of a revolving door between them and the boards of foundations. This is not to say that executive directors are insincere about their organization’s mission. But they begin to have less in common with, and less connection to staff and to the work, and more connection to donors and lobbyists. Besides this — to reiterate — the nonprofit itself operates under constraints: it is trapped in a cycle of growth and competition with other organizations.

All the more reason nonprofit workers need to organize. Only collective action and collective bargaining can secure the protections they need, and allow them to perform the work as they best see fit. And there are a lot of success stories — staff at StoryCorps just negotiated their first contract.

In the for-profit sector, workers fight over what share of revenue goes to profits and what share goes to wages. In the nonprofit sector, that fight will be over what share of funding goes toward wages and serving the community, at the expense of executive salaries and endless growth.

Finally, there’s a lesson to be learned here about the engine of social justice. There’s been a lot invested in these types of organizations – literally, in terms public and philanthropic dollars, but also in terms of the hopes of progressives, and the sweat of workers. Despite reservations about how they operate, every one of the workers I spoke to was deeply committed to the mission of the organization they work for. Progressive nonprofits indeed do a lot of good in the world, including by filling the gaps created by the withdrawal of the welfare state. But they don’t exactly build power from below. We can see that in the friction that is generated whenever workers try to steer. We also see it in the fact that, when nonprofits face financial hardship, the first places they make cuts are with their own workers and with service (in the examples of mass layoffs and service cutbacks mentioned above, there was very little cutting on the side of management). Democratizing how these organizations function will first and foremost be a question of organizing their workers.

Update: this article has been updated to reflect minor corrections to the Disability Rights Oregon story. The employer did not initially specify how many layoffs they were looking to make, but the union surmised, based on budget information, that four would be made. Three employees volunteered.