More and more nonprofit staff are represented by unions, due to a surge of successful union votes since 2020.
The Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU) represents workers at 48 mostly social justice organizations as of 2022. Other international unions representing a growing number of nonprofits include the Communication Workers of America, SEIU, the United Auto Workers and OPEIU’s Nonprofit Employees United. For electoral campaigns, the Campaign Workers Guild is leading groundbreaking work to organize workers on candidate campaigns.
The decision whether to seek union representation is, of course, up to the non-management employees of the organization. It should go without saying, but unfortunately doesn’t, that it is illegal for nonprofit managers and boards to impede a union campaign, or to attempt to influence the outcome of an employee vote. Promoting leaders of the union drive to remove them from the bargaining union isn’t illegal, but it is unethical.
“It was straight-up union-busting,” said one organizer who was fired after attempting to form a union.
“Although our organization claims to be union-friendly, they have failed to compromise with the union on almost every issue.”
Nonprofit managers who reflect on their own values may realize that integrity means enthusiastically welcoming their staff’s unionization efforts. And higher morale, better communication and less turnover are beneficial to nonprofit managers as well.
Over 40% of organizers interviewed by All Due Respect were part of a union, in the process of negotiating a union contract, or exploring the idea of forming a union shop. Younger and newer organizers are especially likely to consider unionization as a way to improve the working conditions within their organization.
Some unionized nonprofit employees report more transparency, more channels for input and ultimately stronger organizations. Union contracts detail protections from mistreatment in an enforceable way. The process of organizing a union campaign, whether or not it is successful, has brought some nonprofit employees together in a closer-knit community of solidarity.
“The union was the best part of the job, kept the organization accountable, and got us better pay and benefits.”
“I think the most important thing any worker can do to improve their conditions is to organize a union, organizers includ[ed]. I think it’s important for staff unions at mission-driven organizations to share the overall mission of the organization, and to advance it by advocating for the needs of the staff.”
However, for the nonprofit sector, unionization is not a panacea, nor a shortcut to better labor conditions, as it would be if the entire corporate sector unionized.
There were three concerns raised by the organizers surveyed by All Due Respect who had been part of unions or union drives. The first was about what a slow and time-intensive process it turned out to be. Some felt frustrated, or even burned out, by the years, plural, from the beginning of the organizing process to having a contract. Excessive time in meetings can be an energy drain, and planning a union drive requires lots of meetings. Even for organizers accustomed to tough campaigns, the challenges of organizing a union should not be downplayed.
“It was exhausting. We’d meet secretly by Zoom at 11 p.m. after our campaign work was done for the day.”
“Workers are often too drained to unionize.”
Second, some felt that unionization increased tension in the organization without a way to resolve it. Changing organizational dynamics so that management and staff were seen as different teams sometimes had negative effects on the internal culture.
Third, some unionized nonprofit workplaces have seen modest or no increased compensation. This may come as a surprise to those who understand the importance of rates of unionization on overall US wages. But the situation for foundation- and donor-dependent nonprofits can be different. Worker power in the private sector can squeeze corporate profits and executive pay to get a greater share for labor. Worker power in the public sector can squeeze legislators to shift more tax dollars to public employees. That’s what makes organized labor so crucial to struggles against extreme inequality. But in the foundation- and donor-funded nonprofit sector, most employers have no large reserve pool of money for collective bargaining to tap. If workers’ main goal is increased compensation, they may be disappointed by the results of unionization. Voting in a union can have many positive outcomes, but it can’t magically make new funding appear.
To avoid these downsides, the choice of unions makes a difference. A local that brings in an adversarial model from the corporate or public sectors may not fit every organization’s needs. Working with unions that have specific experience organizing nonprofit workers/community organizations, like NPEU, might help ensure that the union organizers understand the specific needs and desires of both workers and management throughout the process of forming a union and bargaining a contract.
“At the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, staffers began discussing unionizing last fall. After a couple of months shopping around for various unions, they settled on NPEU. ’We felt really connected to NPEU because they’re mission driven, and we’re similarly a very mission driven organization’, says Morgan Conley, a national election protection coordinator there.”
State labor laws vary, and we can’t give specific advice on navigating them. For employees considering unionization, the first step is to look at the websites of unions relevant to your work (see NPEU’s How to Join page, WBNG, SEIU Local 500 and OPEIU’s nonprofit page), and contact them to ask for information.
“The union contract is huge for our sustainability and strength. It’s been a godsend, and I think it’s going to [continue] to be good for the organization after I leave.” – Lisa Duran, Executive Director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC)