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Nonprofit Workers Unionize – Good or Bad for Charity?

Nonprofit Workers Unionize Kathleen Robinson Inside Charity

Nonprofit Workers Unionize is Dr. Kathleen Robinson’s take on a recent move by nonprofit workers in Minnesota to enter collective bargaining.

Workers at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN) announced in March they are unionizing. The announcement came two days after they asked management of the organization to grant voluntary recognition during a biweekly staff meeting. Minnesota Council of Nonprofits’ Executive Director Jon Pratt, has not yet voluntarily recognized the union.

The Minnesota StarTribune reported that “worker-level employees” of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits wanted to join the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild.  As standard procedure, Jon Pratt could have recognized workers’ right to join a union but did not.  So, the union filed for an election to take place in April to formally establish the local unit and begin contract negotiations in good faith.[i] The first hearing by MCN’s board of directors was to be held on 16 March 2021.[ii]

The Minnesota Newspaper and Communication Guild issued a formal statement on 10 March 2021 about nonprofit workers who wish to join their union. In the official Guild release it stated workers at MCN wanted to join a union because, “frustration built up over time when policy changes, decisions about workload, and new programming ideas happened without the input from staff who are responsible for the implementation of the activities. The lack of collaboration has led to staff burnout, especially among staff whose job it is to make the day-to-day activities of MCN flourish and thrive.”  While racial justice has been a part of the MCN’s strategic plan for years, some staff felt MCN leadership gave only “tepid gestures” towards racial equity strategic plans when there needed to be a “bold and unapologetic effort”.  In addition, while MCN provides its employees some benefits, workers believed more effort needed to be placed on improving working conditions, particularly focused on racial justice in the nonprofit sector and through their strategic efforts as a state association.  They want to implement “a model of collective decision making” which values and respects workers’ time and labor, justly compensates them, invests in their professional growth, and increases worker satisfaction with MCN as a workplace.  As one staff member said, “As a union what we fight for isn’t just a suggestion. It’s a negotiation; it is real power. It’s the best way to center the most marginal in our workplace and to give them actual power to give management and directors guidance and direction.”[iii]

On 12 March MCN issued the following statement on their website: “On Tuesday, March 9, 2021, the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN) received a request from several MCN employees to be recognized as a union affiliated with the Minnesota Newspaper & Communications Guild.  As a state association with over 2,200 nonprofit member organizations from across Minnesota and the region, a democratically elected and representative board of directors, and a sincere belief in the importance and vitality of the nonprofit sector and the people and communities that make it go, MCN is energized to explore the proposal in a way that is respectful, inclusive, and holistically considerate.  Before responding to the proposal, MCN is committed to hearing from all interested parties, including staff members and the organization’s board of directors, and thoughtfully considering full implications for the organization and its far-reaching work. MCN’s board of directors will hear directly from staff representatives at its board meeting on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. We look forward to the opportunity to share further information following the meeting.”[iv]

Nonprofit Workers Unionize – Good or Bad for Charity?

Nonprofits employees seeking to unionize is not a new phenomenon.  As the sector has exploded, the movement has gained steam. From 1995 to the present, increasingly nonprofit employees are joining a union to address nonprofit sector workplace issues that management has been unwilling or unable to resolve or acknowledge.  At first the spread of nonprofit employees joining a union was slow and mostly involved media, health, legal, policy, museum, and arts nonprofits, universities, and government nonprofit employees.  But as the nonprofit sector replaced former government services employees in numbers and function, became a ‘big business’ industry, a significant part of the US economy, and acquired a new cadre’ of university-trained nonprofit workers and managers, unions are switching their attention from unionizing government-based employees to the larger nonprofit industry.[v]

What is new is that MCN employees are the first nonprofit state association employees in the nation to seek to unionize.  MCN is not an unknown, unrecognized state association.  For the past thirty years, they led, supported, and trained staff at other state associations. MCN led in crafting and promoting standards of nonprofit practices.  MCN is a recognize pioneer in the sector’s standards movement nationwide.  MCN developed and influenced other nonprofit organizations and state associations to build communication, mentoring, advocacy, research, and development infrastructure through which information about effective nonprofit business principles and practices have spread.  They were instrumental in the sector’s fairly widespread national adoption of standards of practice.  MCN was at the table to influence the federal government’s approach to policy change and regulation.  In short, through MCN’s leadership in partnership with the Independent Sector, BoardSource, The Nonprofit Quarterly, the National Council of Nonprofits, and Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organization’s Standards of Excellence Institute, the USA’s nonprofit sector’s acceptable standards of practice are much more unified and standardized than it was prior to 2007.  These standards largely address leadership, management, governance, and fiduciary responsibilities.  The intended readership is management.  Obviously, many of the principles and practices advocate for leadership and governance behaviors and structures that positively affect worker satisfaction and effective work environments.  However, up to 2021, the industry has largely spoken to management.

MCN employees’ desire to unionize raises numerous questions.  Given they were a leader in standardizing effective business practices, and ethical and accountability standards, how could their Council’s work environment be so off the standards as to require employees to seek union involvement so that their voice is heard in leadership and governance decision-making?  And, to the focus of this article, what are the potential consequences and impacts of one of the largest, most influential state association’s employees seeking to join a union?  Will it speed up the sector’s unionization?

The potential for MCN employees’ unionizing efforts to impact the sector is higher than if one of the other state associations that played less of a national leadership unionized.  MCN is one of the largest state associations in the USA, if not the largest.  Their decision to unionize or not unionize will be publicized.  Their situation will be and already is being discussed nationally among state association leaders and their nonprofit organization members.  For sure, university faculty affiliated with research and development centers focus on nonprofit issues will pay attention.  Foundation leaders and employees will also pay attention.

Nonprofit employees may hear about and consider joining a union faster than in the past, thanks partially to MCN’s past national roles.  From 1995 through to the present, the entire infrastructure was built that was required to promote guidelines to change nonprofit organization’s thinking, behavior, values, and organizational practices.  Very few state associations existed in 1995 but now every state has at least one state association or is a regional hub for a regional association.  Since 1990, The National Council of Nonprofits (NCN) became the base to link these state associations into a national hub.  This network is a training, information dissemination, advocacy, research, and development hub.  Member nonprofit state associations now have the communication infrastructure necessary to quickly disseminate information to nonprofits across America. While presently largely geared to management concerns, this same infrastructure could address more employee (i.e., ‘worker’ as unions tend to call them) concerns.

We have known for a long time that the rate of adoption of new practices is conditional on sector influentials’ adoption of innovations.  Adoption rate is dependent on getting the word out and addressing the pros and cons of unionizing.  Research shows there will be early adopters, those that wait for influentials they trust to adopt before they do so, those that wait for quite a long time before such consideration, and those that never adopt.  I suspect this same adoption phenomena will happen with the sector’s spread of unionized nonprofit shops.  We are certainly past the pioneer days of nonprofit unionization.  With MCN employees’ considerations of unionizing, the sector may well be into the mainstream adoption phase when many more employees (and some nonprofits’ management) seriously consider joining a union to address many of the issues they either have been afraid to address, such as raising compensation levels, or unwilling to address, such as re-structuring to allow to greater voice and authority to determine the organization’s strategic directions and policies.

The network of state nonprofit associations allows for an efficient way for unions to identify prospects, and to spread their message to leaders, management, and employees.  Every state association has county, regional, and statewide conferences each year.  There is nothing stopping union representatives from attending these conferences and making connections with its attendees.  It is fairly easy to access state associations’ membership listings.  State associations could spread efficiently with existing communication infrastructures new information to nonprofit employees as well as management about the pros and cons of unionizing.  Unions have a vehicle to efficiently work through, if individual state association leaders are so inclined.

While all current nonprofit state association have a small percentage (between less than 1% to 8%) of the total number of nonprofits in their state as members, many non-member nonprofit employees and executives do attend state association functions and access their information.  Many foundations work with and through their nonprofit state association.

Presently, state associations focus more on leadership, management and fiduciary issues in their conferences, webinars, and information resources.  However, there is opportunity for the state associations to widen the tent on themes of interest to nonprofit workers.  New kinds of partnerships and services may be needed, such as mediation and conflict resolution services, legal aid, systemic analysis experts, cross-cultural communication training, more sophisticated, knowledgeable organizational development resources that restructure nonprofit governance and leadership functions so that they are shared and distributed throughout the organization rather than centered in one CEO or a small senior executive team and the board of directors.  Insurance agents may be needed to review Directors and Officers liability insurance and make modifications considering unionization.  State associations could provide helpful sessions on all the issues involved in unionizing an organization.  But it will take management being willing to do so. Otherwise, the unions will assume some of these functions.

Today, many state associations remain small, understaffed, and attract a marginal number of their state’s nonprofit population.  Others are far reaching.  MCN is one of the far- reaching ones (2,200 organizations strong).  No doubt, union organizers will seek to understand which state associations have a number of staff members.  They will seek to understand which nonprofits have the most employees.  They will focus their efforts on these organizations.  Given the sizes of nonprofits’ budgets and the databases available through the IRS and GuideStar, this task will be fairly easily secured and done.  As some service providers already do, nonprofits with budgets over $1 million are prospects for unionization.  That somewhat represents the percentage of nonprofits in the US that are potential, prospective union shops.

The three major areas of the nation with the largest number of nonprofits are the San Francisco Bay, New York, and Washington, D.C. areas.  These places can be watched to determine how many nonprofit employees decide to unionize.  In addition, all the major metropolitan areas of every state have the largest clusters of nonprofits.  This reality suggests a strategy union organizer can use to reach nonprofit employees to speed the rate of adoption in each state.

Since the early 2000s many state associations issue an annual nonprofit sector compensation report.  But compensation considered ‘fair’ by management because of the way the report is structured may not be ‘fair or equitable’ when compared to comparable wages for the same type of work in government, business, and industry.  These compensation reports may need to be written differently in the future, from the perspective of employees rather than management.  Try living on $45,000 or below even as a single person irrespective of having a family to support!

One has to wonder why the past promotion of standards has not had more impact on addressing many of the issues raised by nonprofit employees that have sought or are seeking to join a union.  As mentioned, adoptions of the standards of practices have spread across the USA through the nonprofit state associations.  However, it is unclear how many of each state association’s membership also adopted and adhere to the recommended standards of practice.  Implementing the standards that exist requires employees to be knowledgeable enough to see unionizing as a potential answer to their low pay, poor management and leadership standards of practice, no voice in determining the changes that are needed to the organization and its directions.  Effectively handling a diverse workforce requires leaders to have considerable competencies in human relations as well as organizational development.  It requires leaders and board members to be competent leaders that care for employees with the same passion and attention as they care about their customers, donors, and each other.

Will unionizing correct the sector’s deficiencies?  Perhaps with more nonprofit employees unionizing, changes that executives and boards were unable or unwilling to make may occur.  And the forces that work against increasing wages, providing more benefits, and improving working conditions may be addressed.  Nonprofit managers may have ‘coverage’ for making the kinds of decisions they would like to make but think funders, donors, and other influential won’t allow.  Certainly, compensation reports issued by the state associations are useful for management and governors to gage salary and wage structures.  However, if the sector’s compensation schedules are wacky, inequitable, and unjust, it may take union involvement to correct the situation.  There is some evidence that nonprofits that join a union end up with better benefits, compensation and working conditions.[vi]

The issues that prompted MCN ‘worker-level’ employees to advocate joining a union are not uncommon complaints found in many nonprofits.  What nonprofit leaders say and do can be two different realities!  Behavior is dependent on clarified personal ethics, values, morals, leadership beliefs and behaviors, and leaders’ willingness to learn from, engage, and listen to their employees.  Leaders must be willing and able to share authority and control.  Leaders need good people competencies as well as operational and organizational competencies.  Leaders can promote standards of practice that create legal, ethical, accountable organizations but ones that do so at the expense of their employees or minus their power and authority in governance decision making.  Managers can use outdated leadership and governance practices and structures that are ethical, accountable, and meet today’s notions of standards, but that rob employees of their voice in governance decisions that affect their lives, livelihood, and wellbeing.

The nonprofit sector is conducive to unionization because the values and beliefs of unions are much the same as what employees of nonprofits promote through their services to their clients.  Many of the nonprofit leadership, governance, and structural issues voiced by nonprofit employees are those addressed by unions.  Many of these issues are the same values, principles and practices employees seek to address with clients that nonprofits serve.  Many grievances voiced by nonprofit employees seeking to join a union suggest employees can no longer deal with the tension of working to change their clients’ lives and circumstances, while putting up with the same stuff in their nonprofit!  They see unions as a way to gain voice, a seat at the table, and gain control and authority over their work, compensation, benefits, working conditions, and the strategic directions of their nonprofit.

The MCN union organizer, spokesperson, and MCN nonprofit services assistant suggested in the StarTribune article that she hoped their example will cause other organizations to consider unionizing.  Obviously, each of MCN’s member nonprofits would have to formally have its workers seek to join a union and go through a similar procedure MCN is going through.  MCN reports on their website that they have 2,200 member organizations.  While such an undertaking would be enormous, time-consuming, and filled with many organizational, governance, leadership, financial, and legal questions, among others, Minnesota’s nonprofit world may be about to go through a major change.  Certainly, if a favorable decision is made in April when employees vote, it will have ramifications for, at minimum, all MCN member nonprofits in Minnesota.

As the MCN spokesperson said, “MCN can serve as an example for other nonprofits”. “It will help encourage and formalize other nonprofits unionizing.” “All these nonprofits that are working so hard toward equity and justice can actually work together, and possibly they can all unionize and transform our sector.”[vii] So at least the spokesperson sees MCN’s employees move to join a union as a catalyst to work with other nonprofits to do the same.  Whether this effort reaches program level status within MCN remains to be seen.  Whether the scope of MCN’s work in being a catalyst for unionization of nonprofit employees is national, regional, or statewide remains to be seen.

After the retirement of their current CEO in 2021, whether MCN continues to be the national influencer is questionable.  MCN’s founder and current CEO, Jon Pratt, announced his retirement in 2021.  MCN will need to seek a new CEO.  However, given Pratt’s pioneering and national leadership presence, state association CEOs, senior staff, national intermediary nonprofit organization leaders, foundations CEOs, university faculty in nonprofit leadership and management programs, and others will certainly pay attention to what happens to MCN as it goes through the discussions and decisions regarding unionizing and the choice of a new CEO.  Many will pay attention to learn from their successes and mistakes, no matter which way the decision goes.

Examples of nonprofits that have joined unions are: Fifty-four (54) nonprofits belong to the Services Employees International Union Chapter 1021.  Examples include The Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco; the Catholic Charities; Child, Family and Community Services; Asian Health Services; ARC San Francisco. SEIU is a labor organization that represents employees of local governments, health care organizations, and school districts throughout Northern California.  Notable is that unionization has occur among religious nonprofits, child and family services, youth development, environmental nonprofits, as well as nonprofits that have unionized in the past which were largely from media, health, arts, and government.

Thirty-six (36) state and national nonprofits have joined the National Professional Employees Union (NPEU).  NPEU is a division of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO and CLC. They have over 80,000 members. Examples of nonprofits that joined NPEU are the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (Washington DC); Maryland Center for Economic Policy; the National Immigration Law Center; and Pittsburgh United.   The Center for Public Policy Priorities joined NPEU because of the “incongruity between the think tank’s advocacy on issues such as health care, living wages and public benefits, and the way it treated its employees”.  The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities joined for the same reason.  CBPP advocated for national paid family leave but was offering employees just two full weeks of paid parental leave, in addition to six weeks of short-term disability benefits, before the union got involved.  After about 90 workers at CBPP unionized in 2018, they won a contract from the company that included a wage floor of $50,000, 12 weeks of paid family leave and guaranteed cost of living raises for most of its workers for the next three years.

There are currently 69 different unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO so nonprofits, depending on their missions and strategic programs have many different unions to which they could consider belonging.

In 2019, The Southern Poverty Law Center joined The Washington-Baltimore News Guild, Local 32035 of the News Guild-Communication Workers of America, AFL-CIO after widespread reports of senior leadership misconduct, various forms of discrimination, including wage, gender, and racial discrimination, and inappropriate, unfair, unequitable treatment of staff.[viii]  The Center has 11 offices in five states and Washington, D.C. with hundreds of employeesThe backdrop to the turmoil somewhat centered on the rapid growth of the organization with new staff and leadership inability to handle effectively the increased scale and diversity of staff, as well as senior leadership misconduct.  For a super majority of Center staff having union representation was one way for them to make sure employees were meaningfully engaged in determining what the future looks like at SPLC, according to the Washington Post coverage of their situation.[ix]

Other nonprofits are joining or forming a chapter of the NewsGuild which has 24,000 members.  Members include journalists at newspapers, online publications, magazines, news services and in broadcast in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico. They also include employees in advertising, circulation, business offices and other departments essential to the operations of media enterprises.

Yet additional unions that nonprofits have join are American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Communication Workers of America, Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), and National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, just to name a few.

Issues frequently raised by employees seeking to join a union are: Lack of a voice in determining the organization’s directions and employees work roles; lack of professional advancement opportunities; leaders’ expectation that employees work 45-60 hours every week without just compensation; non-transparency of and involvement in governance and leadership decision-making; lack of involvement in decision making that affects their work, lives, and livelihood; inadequate benefits and pay; leaders refusal to cut ties with racist and sexist donors; leaders expecting responses to emails outside work hours; extensive after-hours work engagements with no downtime during the week to compensate (a major issue voiced by development officers); excessive leader control of worker behavior and work routines; non-transparent, inconsistent, and inappropriate performance appraisals procedures; no professional development opportunities or ability to advance in career or change work roles; blatant discrimination (e.g. gender, racial); sexual misconduct; financial corruption at leadership and/or board of directors level; wage disparities between and among senior leaders and staff; leaders intrusions into personal lives; leaders’ unrealistic goals; limited opportunities for promotion; sexual harassment; inconsistent or discriminatory grievance procedures; violations of laws; use of part-time staff to get around payment of benefits; use of contract staff in violation of the labor laws.

As early as 2000, Jeanne Peters and Jan Masaoka categorized five emerging themes facing nonprofit management: decision-making, management and human resource management, wages and benefits, political context, and racial tension.  These issues are still present in 2021 with little change in the nonprofit sector to adequately address the issues, and little change in organizational leadership, governance cultures and structures that better address the issues to the satisfaction of employees.[x]

MCN’s employees move to join a union could be a significant catalyst to wake up nonprofit leaders and nonprofit employees to address these issues with and without union support.  Certainly, the developed network of national and state nonprofit associations can and more than likely will be involved in discussion on the pros and cons of the sector unionizing.

Nonprofit Workers Unionize – Summary

If Nonprofit Workers Unionize will we see national impact?  There certainly is the potential to wake up employees and managers of state associations of considerable size.  It will capture the attention of university faculty studying such phenomena.  It already is sparking discussion among state leaders, foundations, and university faculty.  It has already highlighted the value and limitations of the sector’s spread of principles and standards of conduct in addressing long standing worker-level grievances about the nonprofit sector.

MCN’s push to unionize raises the issues of the double standard present in the sector: Advocate fairness, equitable treatment, just living conditions for clients, but don’t believe or do the same for nonprofit employees.  Unions are saying “No, you deserve to be treated fairly, equitably, justly too!  You deserve a voice in governance, equitable wages, and a just working environment.  We will be the mediator between you and management and boards of directors to make sure that happens.”

MCN’s push to unionize will start at least a statewide Minnesota debate on the pros and cons of unionizing nonprofits.  Their push may well be the catalyst for several of the larger state associations to begin thinking about resources they can provide for employees, as well as management, as well as examining their own management conduct.  If MCN’s union organizer, who is also an MCN employee, speaks on behalf of a majority of employees, MCN may well have a strategic program to assist nonprofits in Minnesota as well as nationwide to consider joining a union.  Their work will be instructive for other state associations and nonprofit organizations with sizeable staffs.

Unionizing nonprofits does not have to be a win-loose proposition.  It may well help the sector change acceptable compensation levels.  It may help the sector examine working conditions and make necessary changes.  It may positively affect and change leaders’ and governors’ attitudes and practices, and decentralize governance decision making.  It may change the strategic directions of some nonprofits.  It may affect which donations are accepted and which are not and why.  The push to unionize may help leaders deal with issues they have put off for decades because of the fear of reprisal from their donors, community leaders and other influentials.  It may help managers begin to bargain with employees in ways where workers’ voices can no longer be dismissed.  It may curb excessive discrimination, lack of diversity, lack of promotion from within, lack of benefits, lack of respect for workers’ time and efforts, and restore more work-life balance for many nonprofit employees.

It may take an outside force to make these long overdue changes in the sector that current management seems not able or unwilling to make.  The 2007-2021 period in the sector was an experiment in moving nonprofits to adopt sound business practices and ‘self-regulate’ their actions within nationally accepted norms of business practice.  This movement achieved some success at the management and operations level within some nonprofits but little at the worker level.  We may be ready for the sector’s next phase of development to address employee wellbeing and the competencies required of a management to achieve that.

[i] Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild. (2021).  MCN Union: Congratulations on Forming a Union with MN Guild. Minnesota newspaper and Communications Guild Online, 10 March.

[ii] Minnasota Council of Nonprofits (2021). Minnesota Council of Nonprofits board to hear from proposed union staff members.  MCN website, March 21.

[iii] Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild. (2021).  MCN Union: Congratulations on Forming a Union with MN Guild. Minnesota newspaper and Communications Guild Online, 10 March.

[iv] Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. (2021).  Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Board To Hear From Proposed Union Staff Members. MCN website, March 12.

[v] See Eli Rosenberg, Eli. (2020) Workers are forming unions at nonprofits and think tanks. Their bosses aren’t always happy. Washington Post. Feb 4; also Phillips, Philip B. (2021). Protecting The Right To Organize (PRO) Gains Momentum. National Law Review. Volume XI, Number 78, March 9.

[vi] See Capulong, Eduardo, R.C. (2006). Which Side Are You On? Unionization in Social Service Nonprofits. City University of New York Law Review, Vol. 9, Issue 2. Summer; also Rosen, Michael. (2021).  It’s a Terrible Sign When More Nonprofit Employees Join Labor Unions. Michael J. Rosen Says,  Retrieved 23 March 2021; and Hill, Corey. (2013).  Unionizing Nonprofits.  EastBay Express (EBX). August 7.

[vii] Warren, Peter. (2021). Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Plan to Unionize, Joining National Trend in Nonprofits. StarTribune, 12 March.

[viii] Brendan O’Connor (2019).  The Southern Poverty Law Center is Unionizing After Years of Scandal.  Vice.com.

[ix] Eli Rosenberg, Eli. (2020) Workers are forming unions at nonprofits and think tanks. Their bosses aren’t always happy. Washington Post. Feb 4.

[x] Jeanne B. Peters, Jeanne B., & Masaoka, Jan. (2000).  A House Divided: How Nonprofits Experience Union Drives. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, Vol. 10, Issue 3, Spring, 305-317.

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