Dear Nonprofiteer, If I want higher wages will you tell me what to do?*

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I work at a major environmental NGO.   I am well compensated, but I can’t help but think my colleagues and others in the sector (I did not always used to be so well compensated) would benefit from Unionization.

What unions exist for non-profit employees? How could we make more?

Signed, In Solidarity

Dear Solidarity:

It does you credit that you remain concerned about the poorly-paid even after you’ve left their number.  But the question you raise can only be answered with a frustrating, “It depends.”

Individual circumstances dictate whether any particular nonprofit would benefit from a union.  Certainly nonprofit employees are a resource for unions looking to grow—our institutions are rooted in the community and therefore unlikely to pick up and move to Dixie (or China) when the union comes to call.  But whether unions are a resource for nonprofit employees looking to grow is a separate question.

If the morale at an agency is poor, and a significant component of that morale is poor wages, hours, benefits and working conditions, then talking union only makes sense.  But if morale is poor because the Executive Director is a dingbat, then unionizing is pretty much beside the point.  And if morale at an agency is high, then there’s unlikely to be much support for the idea of bringing in a third party to mediate between the working and the worked-for—particularly as the organizing process can be so disruptive and embittering.  That’s not a rap on the unions: you’re going to have disruption in any context requiring the taking of sides, whether the subject is program expansion or relocation or mission creep—or union representation.

The issue is certainly not that there aren’t enough unions organizing in the sector, though they may not be organizing enough.  The Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees and even the Teamsters have taken their turns organizing nonprofits, often following jobs government agencies have chosen to outsource.  (See the Nonprofiteer’s earlier discussion of the “progress” from government employees [unionized] to nonprofit employees [non-union, at least at first] to faith-based employees [presumably too holy to strike].)  So we don’t need to “make more” unions; we need to encourage more nonprofits to adopt either significant improvements to compensation, benefits and work rules or a relationship with a union designed to provide those significant improvements.

If you can get from a nonprofit Board of Directors the improvement in wages and working conditions you want, there’s no need to go union.  But those Boards of Directors are apt to be resistant to your demands, because they regard it as their fiduciary duty to direct money to programs rather than to the salaries of the people who run those programs.  (If this strikes you as a distinction without a difference, you’re completely correct—but you’re also obviously unfamiliar with the rhetoric of charities and their funders.)  Or they might resist your demands just because they’re lazy and don’t want to raise money.

In either case of resistance, having a union organizer in your back pocket (or at least on speed dial) may be what’s necessary to get the Board’s genuine attention.  Just as the prospect of being hanged concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully, so the prospect of being unionized concentrates the minds of charity Boards.

(A rigorous research paper on the subject reported that nonprofit organizing drives succeed more often than those at for-profits.  But does that mean that nonprofit employees’ sense of social justice makes them/us more receptive to unions, or just that unions don’t bother to organize at nonprofits til they can see it’s going to be a slam-dunk?)

The Nonprofiteer always snorts when she hears employers talk about how it would be a shame to insert a stranger between them and their employees, who are just like family.  Especially at nonprofits, if a workplace is like a family, it’s generally like the family in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  But small and medium-sized nonprofits do have a uniquely porous relationship between management and labor, as well as between management and governance; and a union, or even a failed organizing drive, will disrupt that once and for all.

Thus, unions make the most sense at the largest nonprofits (the hospitals and universities), which are practically indistinguishable from for-profits.  At smaller agencies they may make sense, but only if employees are already up in arms, and only if there’s blood left in the turnip.

Oh, and only if fresh employees will be hard to find.  It’s illegal to fire someone for union organizing but you can be made uncomfortable enough to quit, and that may be a higher price than you’re willing to pay to make sure your fellows can send their children to college.  Or perhaps not.

Solidarity forever!

———————

See Talkin’ Union

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