When nonprofit employees organize a union at their workplace, the organization’s leaders are sometimes unaware and are caught off-guard by the news.
Some leaders, shocked to learn how unhappy their employees are, have called Jan Masaoka, CEO of California Association of Nonprofits, crying over the news. Leaders feel like they have tried as hard as they can to provide for employees and that unionization feels like a betrayal, Masaoka says.
She says that staff working at nonprofits can develop unrealistic expectations about democratic decision-making in the workplace, which can lead to a desire to form a union. The process is often tense and antagonistic, but leaders have to put the best spin on things for grant makers, donors, and the public even in the midst of acrimonious deliberations, she says.
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Some leaders, shocked to learn how unhappy their employees are, have called Jan Masaoka, CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits, crying over the news. Leaders feel like they have tried as hard as they can to provide for employees and that unionization feels like a betrayal, Masaoka says.
She says that staff working at nonprofits can develop unrealistic expectations about democratic decision making in the workplace, which can lead to a desire to form a union. The process is often tense and antagonistic, but leaders have to put the best spin on things for grant makers, donors, and the public even in the midst of acrimonious deliberations, she says.
For Shannon Smith Jones, executive director of Hope Community, a housing and neighborhood-development group in Minneapolis, the union-organizing drive couldn’t have come at a worse time. She was the group’s first Black leader, which she says often leads to employee expectations that the new executive can fix longstanding problems quickly. Adding to the pressure, Smith Jones’s mother was in hospice, and the murder of George Floyd had recently taken place in their city.
“It felt like an attack against me,” she says. “There’s something about unionizing that creates an adversarial space because now we’re on different sides of a real table.” She says she felt isolated and that the process never felt like it was going to be productive — until she put aside her feelings and tried to just listen.
“I can appreciate the heart and tenacity of my staff,” Smith Jones says.
A Disconcerting Role
Nancy Withbroe, chief operating officer at the National Women’s Law Center, always thought of herself as someone who fought for the underdog. She grew up in a union family: Her grandfather and uncles were all in a union, as was her father when he was a young adult. She has worked as an activist. But when employees at the law center formed a union, she was suddenly cast as management — the one representing the powerful and pushing back on some union proposals. She says it was unsettling.
“I have to look out for the financial sustainability of the organization and make sure that we have enough folks working every day,” she says. “It feels deeply uncomfortable to be that person who has to hold the line.”
In addition to the personal conflicts leaders feel, most are unfamiliar with the unionization process and have never been involved in contract negotiations. They’re being thrust into a complex and specialized legal world.
Withbroe found support in an informal group of other strategic leaders of progressive policy groups she organized when she started her job. Of the 60 people in the group, about half are dealing with union efforts. Being able to share resources, contacts, and experiences has been helpful as they navigate the unfamiliar process.
The group has also helped her with the emotional toll of negotiating.
“It’s not appropriate for me to bring my identity and my journey as a leader and all that into the room,” Withbroe says. “It’s important to have spaces where I can feel like I’m myself and can be supported by other folks so that I can show up and not take it personally when we are negotiating something hard, when I’m playing that role. But it is tough, for sure.”