Why Would Progressive Nonprofit Organizations Need a Union?

Most of us join the nonprofit world as a way of making a difference. We believe in our organization’s mission and give countless hours to helping to make the world a better place. Whether we are fighting for saner international trade policy, the environment or women and LGBT rights, we have made many sacrifices to be a part of these social justice movements.

When we hear about union organizing, we often think that unions come in to fight exploitive and unethical bosses and corporations to give workers in factories or fields a bit more of a humane existence. Philosophically and politically, many of us support labor unions but don’t think of labor unions as something that could exist in our offices or ever consider collective bargaining for ourselves.  In Washington, DC, and across the US, many nonprofit professionals are seeing the positive impact of unionization at their workplaces.

Academics, Advocates and Activists are all Part of SEIU Local 500!
One of the largest trends in the past 10 years is the rise of professional employees joining unions. At SEIU Local 500, our fastest growing group of workers is currently adjunct professors, including those that teach at George Washington University, American University, and Georgetown University.  We also represent staff members at Public Citizen, Oxfam America, and the United States Student Association. Staff members at many large LGBT organizations, women’s organizations and professionals’ associations are all unionized in Washington, DC, nationally and internationally.  In fact, the staff of SEIU Local 500 has a union, as do most labor unions and labor rights activists.

Unions aren’t here just to “Fight the Boss.”
You can like your boss and still have a union. You can believe in your organization and still have a union. Forming a union is not a statement about who runs your organization and how they do it. When unions and management negotiate a union contract, the process allows both the staff and the management to collectively come up with the rules for the workplace. It allows there to be clear agreement on workplace topics.  We often use an interest-based bargaining process, otherwise known as win-win bargaining, to come up with our agreements. The bottom line is employees need protection, not just from the boss you have today but from the person who may be hired tomorrow.

“Our funding is always changing, so how can we have a union?”
Just as your salary doesn’t change based on a grant approval, neither would your collective bargaining agreement. Unions base contracts on financial realities, including contingent funding. In the public sector we deal with county and state budgets that change every year. We often include language that recognizes the realities of changing budgets, but most importantly, a contract will allow employees and management to deal with budget shortfalls and increases jointly. Employees will have a say in how changing finances impact their work lives.

 

 

“The recession has been hard on nonprofits. Unions won’t be able to win us anything.”
Local 500 nonprofit union members have bargained contracts that have made their lives better. Work/Life balance is a constant challenge for employees in nonprofits, and a union contract can address those issues. We have also worked with nonprofits to come up with plans to deal with student loan debt, use of personal technology, telecommuting and working at home. The collective bargaining process can be used to create committees or study groups to figure out how to deal with the constant stress that social justice work puts on staff and their families. We can also assist employees in figuring out if their salaries are below or above the industry standard and to be sure that the wage gap between upper management and other staff isn’t unreasonably large.

The changing climate in nonprofits organizations is impacting staff
Over the past 15 years, some nonprofit organizations have begun an increasing creep toward corporate management behaviors. Large nonprofits sometimes bring in former corporate executives to shake things up or to change the culture to be results-driven and to better mirror the business world. While all of us applaud the desire to see limited funds used the most effectively, these cultural changes can often impact our effectiveness, diversity and our organizational culture. The work of nonprofits is unique and can be hard to measure. How does one quantify empowerment or true education? Do timelines created by staff management give the field staff the ability to make true change or work collaboratively with community members? Staff members should be able voice their concerns, and a union contract will give you more protection to adequately address political issues that arise in your organization.

Join us as a way to strengthen the social justice movement in the United States.
SEIU is at the forefront of important issues like healthcare for all, immigration, gay marriage and the rising wage gap. By joining with SEIU, you can add your voice to the 2.2 million working people who want to see a more just economy for all. Also, the union can offer you a way to become more engaged in local and national political campaigns, something forbidden by many nonprofits’ tax status. We are stronger together and SEIU is a force in progressive politics.

 

Curious?

Want to hear more about what a union could mean for you or your organization?
Summits for nonprofit members in Washington, DC, are being planned, and we would enjoy having  an off-the-record conversation with you about your organization and how you all may benefit from union membership. You can connect with other nonprofit staff members in the SEIU Local 500 family. For more information, please contact: Ed Fortney at 301-740-7100 or fortneye@seiu500.org

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