Over his six years at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Esteban Gil watched colleague after colleague leave after just a few years. Part of it was the nature of the work: helping people in immigrant detention and in prison. It is high-stakes, high-stress work. But there was also something deeply wrong with the way the group operated and the very low pay, he says.
“People burn out and they tire out, and then they leave,” says Gil, a program associate in the group’s criminal-justice reform division. They didn’t have autonomy in their jobs, he says, and didn’t feel respected. Some folks left for more money, and others left to get away. “We had a problem with mismanagement and toxicity.”
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“People burn out and they tire out, and then they leave,” says Gil, a program associate in the group’s criminal-justice-reform division. They didn’t have autonomy in their jobs, he says, and didn’t feel respected. Some folks left for more money, and others left to get away. “We had a problem with mismanagement and toxicity.”
A union, Gil thought, could be the answer, so he and his co-workers decided to form one. That decision set in motion a fractious chain of events that pitted workers and management against each other. Employees picketed to protest the organization’s return-to-work policy, and donors cornered leaders at events, alarmed at how the union was being treated. After nearly three years of wrangling, the union ratified a contract in October that both sides say they’re happy with, but hard feelings remain.
The roots of the union drive date to 2019 when a staff member resigned. Fellow employees sent a letter to executives alleging sexual discrimination, racism, and harassment. That resulted in the group’s founder, Morris Dees, being terminated and the president and legal director resigning.
Employees discovered that they could wield power, even at a large, influential nonprofit like the law center, which employs nearly 400 people who monitor hate groups, provide educational resources, and bring lawsuits over a range of civil-rights, immigration, and criminal-justice issues. Not long after the leadership shake-up, staff began to talk about unionizing.
Money was a key issue. Jackie Hurst, who works as a bilingual administrative assistant at the group, says that her department, part of the immigrant-justice project, had been chronically understaffed and often dismissed as less important than other departments. After taxes and other deductions, Hurst took home just $1,100 for two weeks of work. She earned so little that she lives 54 miles away from the group’s Decatur, Ga., office, where housing is cheaper. “Our pay was not sustainable,” she says.
Lecia Brooks, chief of staff and culture at the organization and management’s lead negotiator with the union, agrees that the 2019 leadership turmoil exposed how little voice staff had in how the organization was run.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is far from alone. The list of cultural institutions, advocacy groups, and social-service organizations that have unionized includes big names like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Common Cause, along with smaller ones like the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Even as the economy cools and fears of recession grow, both union organizers and consultants who advise nonprofit leaders on the issue say nonprofit staff are continuing to unionize at the same fast pace.
Across a broad swath of the nonprofit world, more and more employees are turning to unions for representation. Workers and managers battle over pay, benefits, and diversity and equity while they continue to work side by side to achieve their organizations’ mission. They find themselves stuck in a contentious process designed for for-profit companies that is often a poor fit with the nonprofit world, where leaders may not always oppose the union or employees’ proposals.
Unions can serve as an important check in the nonprofit world, says Nancy Withbroe, COO of the National Women’s Law Center, which recently unionized. “We are not above reproach in our sector, and there are certainly things that we need to work on.”
These union drives raise important questions about how organizations that say they support economic, social, and racial equity can do a better job helping their own employees achieve those goals. Withbroe says that when unions and organizations truly share similar values, there should be a less adversarial way to achieve those goals.
“I think that would make it easier on the humans involved,” she says, “and maybe even get us to a better outcome.”
Union organizing at nonprofits has accelerated in recent years. Roughly two dozen museums have unionized in the past three years, according to the American Alliance of Museums. The Nonprofit Professional Employees Union has grown from 300 workers at 12 organizations in 2018 to 1,500 workers at nearly 50 organizations today. In 2019, the Office and Professional Employees International Union started an offshoot to represent nonprofit employees. Its Nonprofit Employees United now represents workers at 68 organizations. The NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America went from having five unions recognized in 2019 to 44 today. In New York City, about two-thirds of the 170 social-service organizations that are members of the Human Services Council have some union presence.
I just want to be compensated for the work I am doing. I just want them to acknowledge that prices are rising, and I can’t live off of the salary.
The increase in nonprofit union organization comes at a time when unions have been rising in popularity among all Americans. Approval of unions, at 71 percent, is at its highest since 1965, according to Gallup. While the number of nonprofits that are unionizing is increasing, they likely make up a small part of the overall work force. The government does not break out statistics for nonprofit unionization, but union members make up about 10 percent of the total work force — about half of what it was in 1983, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Unionization at nonprofits is part of a trend exemplified by high-profile labor efforts like those at Starbucks and Amazon. Union drives — and several strikes — at museums across the country have attracted attention, as did the recent lengthy strikes by academic workers at the University of California.
The reasons nonprofit employees are turning to unions are varied.
People who work at nonprofits tend to be younger, well educated, and altruistic — a perfect blend of characteristics that tip people toward interest in unions, says David Zonderman, a history professor at North Carolina State University who teaches labor and nonprofit history.
Many unionizing workers are looking for livable wages and opportunities to advance, all the more important as housing costs and inflation have shot up. Others see unions as a way to press for greater racial equity and live out their values in their work.
At museums and other nonprofits, the pandemic exposed a business model based on underpaying employees, says Laura Lott, CEO of the American Alliance of Museums. Younger workers are increasingly challenging the idea that work at prestigious institutions should come with substandard pay.
Remote Work as a Flashpoint
Lately, conflict over return-to-office mandates is pushing staff to organize, says Hayley Brown, president of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union.
“When you see managers suddenly requiring people to go back to the office, there’s much more of a tendency to ask why and to push back against this idea that we need to return to something that frankly didn’t work,” she says.
That was a key source of tension at Compass Family Services, a 100-year-old San Francisco nonprofit that serves homeless families and has 147 employees.
In August 2021, employees learned they would soon be required to return to the office full time. Workers were concerned about their health and their clients’ privacy in the cramped space. Most staff would have to commute long distances because they didn’t earn enough to live near the office. The staff sent a letter to the group’s leaders outlining their concerns, but after a listening session, staff members didn’t feel they were being taken seriously.
“We came in with an open mind,” says Juliana Dunn, who works as a bilingual after-school coordinator and after-care case manager and a member of the organizing committee at Compass. “They set up an adversarial relationship from the beginning.”
Erica Kish, the group’s executive director, struck what she thought was a compromise, Dunn says. Employees who wanted to work from home one day a week needed to have their supervisor approve a detailed work schedule for that day. “It really felt like, ‘Where’s the trust?’” Dunn says. “We put a certain amount of trust in leadership. Why can’t they reciprocate it?”
Staff presented signatures to management indicating support for creating a union, but the organization’s management didn’t recognize it, which forced the staff to vote on whether to form one. The staff voted to do so in November. “There’s a real feeling now of camaraderie,” Dunn says.
In a written statement to the Chronicle, the organization said that it doesn’t feel that it can fulfill its mission with long-term remote work and that asking for a vote on unionization doesn’t mean that it opposes the union. The group says it looks forward to engaging in the bargaining process.
Nonprofits come out of a tradition of charity and sacrifice, and most have historically paid their employees less than private companies and government. Not surprisingly, salary is often the catalyst for union organizing.
The arguments leaders have long made to push back demands for better pay — budget and contract constraints, the importance of the mission, and the idea that raising wages would take desperately needed funds away from services — are not working as well as they once did, says Hil O’Connell, a national organizer at the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America.
That’s certainly been the case at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Arizona.
Yesenia Ramales, a senior legal assistant, says that no one got raises for two years. At the same time, caseloads were growing and everyone was doing more work. Every time she asked for a raise, she says, she was told the group was there for the community — aren’t you here for the community?
Ramales and her fellow employees were sick of that answer.
“I just want a raise. I just want to be compensated for the work I’m doing,” she says. “I just want them to acknowledge that prices are rising, bills are getting more expensive, and I can’t live off of the salary.”
In November 2021, workers at the organization formed a union, which the group recognized without a vote.
Lillian Aponte, the group’s co-executive director, said she couldn’t comment on ongoing contract negotiations except to say that the leadership looks forward to making the organization stronger through that process. She says it has embraced unionization, and it’s “an opportunity to be together with our staff in a process that allows us to engage in deep listening and meaningful discussion.”
Employees at Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, an Oregon nonprofit, who joined an existing union, saw their wages increase — something they say has also benefited clients.
The organization, which employs more than 1,000 people, provides residential and other services for people going through mental-health crises. Starting salaries were as low as $12 an hour for jobs in residential facilities that were often exhausting and dangerous, says CJ Alicandro, a counselor at Cascadia. When 200 employees joined an existing union at the organization in 2020, their starting wages jumped to $20 an hour. Some staff saw pay increases of as much as 30 percent, Alicandro says.
As a result, turnover is lower and staff is not as short-handed. That’s been a boon for clients, Alicandro says. “They don’t have to have a new clinician every three months. They can stick with the same people and build relationships.”
Contentious by Design
Nonprofits operate off of their reputations, and if they’re mistreating workers and the workers go public about it, that’s going to impact their brand.
At the very start of the unionization process, leaders at the Southern Poverty Law Center made a big mistake. The group’s interim leader, Karen Baynes-Dunning, who is a Black woman, felt it was important to hire a Black lawyer to help the center’s leaders through the unionization and contract negotiation process, says Brooks, the chief of staff who led negotiations for management. Baynes-Dunning wound up hiring one of the lawyers in Amazon’s effort to stop union organizing.
That angered the union. “How is a, quote-unquote, progressive institution like the Southern Poverty Law Center so resistant?” Gil, one of the union organizers, asks. “I’m not going to use the word hypocrisy, but it’s incongruous with the progressive ideals of an organization to fight its union so hard.”
The organization eventually persuaded Joyce Goldstein, a labor lawyer who throughout her career had represented only labor, to represent management in negotiations. Leaders thought that bringing in a union lawyer would show the staff that it was making up for its early misstep.
“We tried to convince Joyce that we’re going to do it differently. We want to approach it differently. We want to be a nonprofit that supports the union. It doesn’t have to be adversarial. We can change the whole paradigm,” Brooks says. “She tried to, and we couldn’t.”
Contract negotiations were contentious from the start. Union negotiators didn’t think management needed a lawyer, so they were not impressed with the choice of Goldstein. The first day of the Zoom negotiations, they showed up wearing berets as an homage to the revolutionary ideals of the Black Panther Party, which was started near the group’s Alabama headquarters. At times, more than 100 staff members watched the negotiations. Union members say it was important that negotiations be transparent. But Goldstein says it made the union negotiators more interested in posturing than negotiating.
On day one, Goldstein says, she offered to set up a memorandum of understanding around basic employee rights — stipulating, for example, that they could be fired only for just cause and setting up a grievance process. She says the NewsGuild told her that it had never had such a beneficial upfront agreement before.
Goldstein told organizers on the day the election count ratified the union that bargaining could begin as soon as they were ready. The union took 11 months to come back with its own proposal.
Organizers say that is longer than they had hoped, but their efforts to develop a proposal coincided with the disastrous early months of the pandemic, the racial-justice movement of 2020, and a sharp increase in the amount of work they were doing on immigration, incarceration, and economic justice. Organizers had to work on contract proposals on their own time.
In the meantime, management decided to try to adapt an existing union contract — one from Amnesty International in which the union was represented by the Communications Workers of America, the same parent union that was representing law-center employees. The organization’s new permanent leader, Margaret Huang, had come from Amnesty, so she was familiar with the contract. The idea was that using an existing contract as a model, already the result of negotiation and compromise, could help both sides short-circuit the adversarial posturing common in these negotiations.
But the move did not sit well with the union, whose members pointed out that Amnesty is a much smaller organization than the law center, which has assets of $770 million in reserve, according to its 2020 informational tax return, compared with Amnesty’s $29 million. The groups, they say, were not comparable.
Union negotiators say they did not fight for the union just to adopt someone else’s compromises. “We started a union to create a new imagined world to take care of all of our workers,” says Lisa Wright, a corporate-gifts coordinator at the law center and a member of the union’s negotiating team.
Asking for the Moon
When the union finally shared its contract proposal, Goldstein says, it cherry picked a host of progressive benefits and ideas. For example, she says, it asked for so much time off that someone who had worked at the organization for four years would get 40 days of vacation, five personal days, 18 sick days, 32 holidays, seven religious holidays, their birthday, and a six-month sabbatical all in one year. Management, she says, started from a place of compromise, but the union started by asking for the moon.
Union negotiators say they spent a lot of time talking with staff at other nonprofits and reviewing other contracts to find ideas they agreed with. They consulted with their 200 co-workers, and they say these were all proposals the group could afford and that the overworked staff needed time to heal. Negotiations work with each side asking for what it wants and bargaining from there, says Katie Glenn, a policy associate at the group and another negotiator.
The union felt strongly about codifying principles on racial discrimination and sexual harassment. But, Goldstein says ideas about diversity and equity don’t easily fit into a contract designed to govern terms and conditions of employment that can be enforced through a grievance procedure. How do you determine whether a group is being antiracist, she asks. How do you enforce that?
“A lot of the things that employees of nonprofits, particularly those who are younger and idealistic, want to put in the bargaining agreement are not things that are appropriately in a contract because they are really unenforceable,” Goldstein says. “They’re a matter of judgment.”
Brooks says that throughout the negotiations, management tried hard to be respectful, listen to workers, and take the high road. But, she says, the union took a different approach, treating management “like we were all the devil,” says Brooks, who accuses the union of personal attacks and talking to the media about the substance of the negotiations. “We didn’t do any of that.”
Gil, however, doesn’t think anyone should be pulling punches when it comes to getting the best deal possible for workers. “We do not apologize for being combative or militant. This is ultimately a conflict between two classes, the class that works and the employer class, and our interests are at odds,” he says. “We didn’t think anything was out of bounds.”
Perhaps most damaging, from the law center’s perspective, the union sent out messages criticizing management and the negotiation process through its action network and social media that reached donors, who called in upset about the way the union was treated. They confronted leaders at fundraising events. Brooks says that the law center likely lost a handful of donors as a result.
“You don’t want to lose anyone,” says Brooks. “We have really, really worked to be in relationships with our donors, like they are family.”
Targeting donors is a powerful bargaining tactic for nonprofit workers, and it’s something organizations should expect to see more often, says Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America, the union that represents the law-center employees.
“Nonprofits operate off of their reputation and their brand, and if they’re mistreating workers and the workers go public about it, that’s going to impact their brand and their reputation,” he says. “It’s a huge point of leverage.”
Unions often face tough negotiation tactics and delays at nonprofits, O’Connell says. Rather than fight over recognizing the union, nonprofits are more likely to recognize unions voluntarily. They may even praise the unions for taking that step, which cements a positive public image. Then they drag out disagreements over everything, like who is eligible to be in the union and fine points in the contract. It is hard for the union to generate bad press over a disagreement about arcane contract provisions, particularly when the public and donors already know that the union has been recognized.
Striking a Deal
Despite the long and acrimonious negotiations, both parties agreed on a contract, which the union ratified in October. But the animosity still lingers.
Even though the union took 11 months to make its initial proposal, Gil blames management for the drawn-out process. “The timeline speaks for itself in a lot of ways about how union busting looks in a progressive nonprofit,” he says. “It’s union busting, but it’s union busting where the people doing it are respectful of people’s preferred gender pronouns.”
The new agreement raised minimum pay from $15 an hour to $20 an hour. Some workers saw their salaries jump from $38,000 a year to $60,000. Hurst saw her take-home salary go from $1,100 to around $1,400 per pay period. The deal ensures that employees who have worked at the organization longer earn more money for each year of seniority they have.
Goldstein says she is happy with the contract, which she says provides the most generous benefits she’s ever seen. She says employees get 18 paid holidays — including Fourth of July week and 20 paid vacation days in their first year. After five years, employees can take a sabbatical. Heath benefits are fully paid by the organization.
Despite Goldstein’s skepticism about how organizational values work in a contract, there is a section devoted to racial justice, equity, and inclusion, which is governed by committees rather than a grievance procedure. Among the provisions is a promise to develop systems and practices to move the organization toward becoming antiracist. The union is proud that the group is banned from using nondisclosure agreements, which are often employed to silence employees who experience discrimination or harassment.
Some of the benefits are less tangible — and aren’t even part of the contract. Gil says staff and management are able to communicate much better than before.
“It’s like having an old Cold War red phone,” he says. “There’s a red phone in the union, and there is a red phone in management. We can talk to each other.”
A Better Way?
Contract talks are by their nature adversarial. “Everybody has to propose extreme things because it’s a hostile negotiation,” says Jan Masaoka, CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits.
Managers can be caught off guard and unnerved by the process, says Amy Smoucha, an adviser with Listening Tree Consulting, who is a former labor organizer and now advises nonprofit leaders who are negotiating with unions. “Just running the organization is like a job and a half. Suddenly having to run the organization and then negotiate and deal with the board and donors,” she says, is “just overwhelming.”
Many leaders who came up through the ranks are unsettled representing management against their employees. But at the same time, staff often feel that management is undermining the union.
Brooks is disappointed that the process was so contentious at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and she thinks there’s a better way for staff and management to come to an agreement on how to run the workplace.
While there are many instances in which leaders fight the union, that isn’t always the case, she says. Nonprofits and their unions sometimes become victims of a system that was designed for two sides coming at a contract from opposing positions at for-profit companies and government agencies.
Just running the organization is a job and a half. Suddenly having to run the organization and then negotiate and deal with the board and donors is overwhelming.
The tone can be set early in the process, says Brandon Nessen, director of organizing with the Office and Professional Employees International Union. If management voluntarily recognizes a union rather than forcing a vote, it tends to result in a less acrimonious contract negotiation.
When there is less of a gulf between the two sides, staff and management could craft principles to guide the process, Brooks says. Before negotiating, they could talk about how the two sides will communicate with each other. There should be early conversations about what matters most to each side, she says, so the negotiation helps both sides move toward those goals.
Another idea: The union could start by discussing its top priorities while management just listens. Brooks says that might give management practice listening, empathizing, and seeing problems through employees’ eyes.
Smoucha tries to stop leaders from getting stuck in an adversarial mind-set by educating everyone on what the negotiating process entails. Management and staff have seldom been through this before, so the more they know going in, the better. It also helps if labor has strong, experienced leaders who have relationships across the organization. Management has to be careful not to send mixed signals, she says. For example, complaining about the union at the office while being cooperative at the bargaining table is not helpful.
“When it’s contentious and acrimonious, no one walks away the better,” Smoucha says.
Goldstein recommends starting negotiations with an existing contract. Although that strategy failed at the law center, she thinks that if both sides agree on a starting point that emerged out of compromise, there will be less to argue over and both sides are likely to have a more productive experience.
The approach is working better in another negotiation she is working on. “It removes the posturing, it removes the unrealistic expectations, it starts you in a middle ground,” she says. “I think it can minimize the disruption to the organization and the animosity that grows out of that.”
Even Gil, for all of his suspicion of management and us-versus-them rhetoric, would like to see a better process. Management, he says, has the power to create more equitable workplaces and can work with the union to achieve common goals.
“If you hold yourself out to be a progressive nonprofit, then walk the walk. Give your employees a seat at the table,” Gil says. “Let’s talk about how we can share power and be a model for the kind of society we want to live in.”