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Will Non-Profits Try To Stop Their Workers From Unionizing?

In a world where a shredded social safety net is the new normal, finding a way to manage the employment needs of all parties in the nonprofit community may be more important than ever.

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Most nonprofits are mission-driven: Their organizational ethos are centered on saving the whales or feeding the homeless as opposed to increasing share prices. But nonprofit management sometimes takes advantage of employees' desire to do good, and guilt-trips them into working long hours for low pay. "[Nonprofit] employers often use this 'Hey, we're all a family,' approach. 'We support unions but they don't belong here. We don't have the resources to absorb a union contract — we're here to provide services to our clients, and having a union come in will take away resources we need for our clients," said Caitlin Prendiville, a researcher in the organizing department at SEIU 1021.

But all is not grim in the world of lending a hand. There are indications that the mission-driven nature of nonprofits can also prove to be an asset in providing an alternative model to the us-versus-them framework adopted in most private sector organizing. "Union organizing in nonprofit settings might not necessarily be adversarial," said Maria Figueroa, director of Labor and Policy Research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. "There is evidence for this in the healthcare sector, including the labor-management partnership between 1199 Healthcare Union/SEIU and voluntary hospitals in New York City, and between a coalition of unions and Kaiser Permanente."

Joey Notaro has worked at Larkin Street Youth Services for almost three years, and he sees early indications that the move toward unionization will yield positive results for all parties. Management, according to Notaro, has repeatedly stressed a desire to work with the union and employees to make improvements. And the vote has created a palpable change in the workplace, he said. "Folks are less timid, less afraid, more willing to speak out more for injustice, and I think that there's a greater sense of worker empowerment and worker economy," he said.

Whatever the case may have been beforehand, after the vote, Larkin Street's management expressed support for the measure. "We look forward to working collaboratively with SEIU to improve the lives of the youth served by Larkin Street and to insure that Larkin Street is a great place to work," said Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services.

Larkin Street Youth Services workers, union reps, and management will begin to work out a contract in the coming weeks. For union organizers, Larkin Street and others like it present a opportunity to expand the role of unions and to adapt to changing workplace conditions. For nonprofit managers and employees, unionization presents an often unexplored means to safeguard worker rights while maintaining the integrity of the organization's mission.

In a world where a shredded social safety net is the new normal, finding a way to manage the employment needs of all parties in the nonprofit community may be more important than ever.

Corey Hill wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. He is the membership and outreach coordinator at Global Exchange. Follow Corey on Twitter at @Newschill.

 
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