A House Divided: How Nonprofits Experience Union Drives

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Drawing from 40 in-depth interviews conducted in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area, the researchers identify factors and conditions driving the emerging trend toward unionization among nonprofit organizations. As the authors note, union drives will frequently test management’s commitment to espoused principles of nonprofit management (such as mission-driven teams, democratic decision-making, etc.). The conflict unfolds in the context of the nonprofit sector’s ongoing discussion of its relationship with, and distinction from, the government and business sectors.

The extent and impact of unionization in the nonprofit sector has been remarkably invisible and unstudied. With few exceptions, the majority of nonprofits have viewed unionization as a matter for business and government. But today, labor unions are increasingly attracted to community-based nonprofit organizations. One reason for labor’s interest is the rapid growth of the nonprofit sector, both in terms of the size of its workforce and the amount of revenue generated (see the article in this issue by Salamon and Dewees). And at the same time that the assets and revenues of tax-exempt organizations tripled in the period between 1975 and 1995 to $1.9 trillion and $899 billion respectively (see the previous Chronicle of Philanthropy, 2/5/99), unions have faced an increasingly hostile environment in business as well as a saturated market in government.
The demographics and typical political orientation of the nonprofit workforce also appeal to organized labor. Researcher J.E. Pynes notes that the nonprofit workforce is similar to the government’s, where unions have had significant success over the last 30 years, in that it consists largely of white-collar occupations.

The economic and political context of this burgeoning movement has an equally important role. Unionization addresses issues fundamental to the voluntary sector’s continuing reflection on its place vis-à-vis the public and for-profit sectors. As protectors of public sector jobs, unions may pursue nonprofit unionization as a means of stemming the tide of privatization. Unions are responding to the blurring of the lines between sectors—accomplished largely through contracting and other cost-containment strategies such as managed care—by recruiting nonprofit workers just as they have those in government and business. At the same time, nonprofit workers may be increasingly receptive to union advances, at least in part, to demonstrate their ambivalence about earning nonprofit salaries while assuming more bureaucratized or business-like roles. Increased interest in union representation comes partly, but not only, from spontaneous organizing efforts by nonprofit employees.
A number of large, national unions are studying the potential for organizing workers in the nonprofit sector. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where the majority of this study is focused, five Service Employees International Union locals have formed a Bay Area task force, United Community Workers, to strategize and coordinate organizing drives among area nonprofits.

The motivations of public sector human service workers are viewed as potentially relevant to research on the unionization of nonprofit organizations because nonprofit workers are often joining the same unions as government employees doing similar work. Overall, the research and theory suggest that nonprofit and government workers value non-monetary advantages as much as the traditional union concerns of salary and benefits. Nonprofit worker unionization appears to stem not only from their desire for better salaries, but also from unmet expectations about the distinction of the nonprofit work culture from corporate or bureaucratic standards.

Pynes argues that nonprofit managers must devote strategic attention to human resources issues to address the motivations to organize. She draws upon a 1990 work by Pfeffer and Davis-Blake, “Unions and Job Satisfaction: An Alternate View,” which identifies four human resource challenges that may foster union activity: when staff feel a lack of autonomy, when they experience poor supervision, when there is too much interpersonal conflict in the workplace, and when management makes substantial new work demands on staff. Pynes suggests that nonprofits need to change their tendency to “administer personnel in an ad hoc manner, making it up as they go along.” “Whether or not workers join unions depends on their perceptions of the work environment and their desire to influence employment conditions. Organizations that provide employees with the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process are less likely to be the targets of unionization.”

Noticeably absent from the literature is a nonprofit management perspective on this issue. How do nonprofit executive directors and boards of directors respond to labor organizing in their agencies? What are their concerns about unionization’s potential impact on the sector? This study is a first step in developing that understanding.

Nonprofit union drives have some similarities to those traditionally found in industry and government, though some aspects are unique or have a different degree of significance in nonprofits. For instance, while higher wages was a common demand, the nonprofit staff respondents demanded a greater voice in decision-making just as loudly and as frequently. Nonprofit staff, from entry-level to veteran, seemed to have an expectation of participatory management—and viewed unionization as a means of achieving it—to a degree that is likely unique to the nonprofit sector.

Similarly, nonprofit management opposed unionization in ways that were sometimes parallel to a traditional business management response, and sometimes strikingly different. In a way that would be entirely unexpected in business, board members and managers expressed emotional conflict over what stance to take. Many managers viewed themselves as pro-labor, but struggled to articulate reasons that nonprofits should be exempt from unionization while other organizations should not. Their fears for the financial viability of their organizations were relatively straightforward, but their reasoning on protecting the nonprofit sector and culture from unionization were just beginning to form.

Five principal arenas for argument emerge from the interview data: decision-making, management and human resource management, wages and benefits, political context, and racial matters.

Decision-making: Non-management respondents in this study most frequently expressed a desire for greater involvement with agency decision-making as the reason for their pro-union stand. They tended to describe an increased impact on agency direction not only as an entitlement, but also as a way to improve the functions of their organizations. For a majority of pro-union staff, their unmet expectation that nonprofits would have a collective, democratic approach to their operations created a sense that they had been misled or betrayed. They argued that their level of involvement and influence was not in line with their organizations’ missions or stated workplace cultures. One case manager concluded: “I think nonprofits are already changed… They say they’re not corporate, but then they tell us things by memo.” As the organizing drives developed, deteriorating communication between staff and management often reinforced staff’s sense of marginalization, strengthening their commitment to organize.

Decision-making is also strongly associated with management’s perception of the uniqueness of the nonprofit culture. Managers and funders expressed concern that the introduction of a union, with its requisite formal structures and processes, would mean a loss of flexibility in the ways decisions are made. Managers also tended to question whether a union would in fact increase staff participation in decision-making. Some claimed that the rigidity of living with a labor contract might actually disempower workers.

Management and Human Resource Management: After decision-making, pro-union staff talked most frequently about management style as they articulated their reasons for organizing. While they sought participatory management, they also wanted effective leadership. Staff were particularly sensitive to the handling of human resource issues. A majority commented on their own treatment or that of their peers. In fact, it was common that a single incident or long-standing set of human resource issues served as the instigator of union organizing. Again, respondents identified the manner and quality of management after drives had begun as reinforcing their commitment to unionize.

Within the umbrella category of management, staff discussed hiring and firing, a lack of effective supervision, workload, and the management of diversity. Again, there appeared to be a heightened expectation that nonprofits would be more supportive, fair, and diverse than for-profit employers. Pro-union staff were specific and passionate in articulating their frustration with management. Some staff felt that their organization’s managers were unqualified or incompetent. For them, unionization was a way to call attention to the problem and achieve more effective leadership. “[Management’s] inexperience has messed up our contracts. We were doing poor work. Thank God for the union; they helped us talk with the city [funder],” claimed a senior case manager.

There were varying management opinions of union representation’s current or potential impact on human resource management. Some executive directors felt that unionization meant a loss of accountability from workers. Some nonprofit managers simply didn’t feel that unionization was an appropriate response to grievances. Their sense of what a nonprofit workplace is supposed to be, as distinct from government in particular, came through in their reasoning.

Wages and Benefits: Respondents often discussed wages and benefits, the most traditional of union issues, although not in every instance. In fact, wages and benefits were seldom raised as the primary issue by pro-union staff. Inequity between their own compensation and that of workers in similar government jobs was more important than the absolute level of compensation (see the article in this issue on nonprofit salaries, page 24). In a few cases, nonprofit and government staff worked side-by-side and saw the wage discrepancy first-hand; in other cases, the union called it to the attention of nonprofit staff during the organizing drive.

Managers and board members, on the other hand, were very concerned with the fiscal implications of unionization. A majority feared having to cut staffing, and therefore programming, to meet union salary demands. Many also expressed their resentment at the impossibility of raising salaries with flatly funded city contracts—a political reality of which unions are aware, they claimed. Referring to staff working to unionize her organization, one board member responded, “I’m amazed at how much power they accorded us. We can’t make funders give us more money to raise salaries.”

Political Context: Particularly among organizations whose missions and activities are inherently political, pro-union respondents tended to discuss the larger implications of nonprofit organizing. Some saw their drives as part of a response to the privatization of government services. For these staff, alignment with the greater political objectives of their union made sense and was part of the inspiration to organize. Some appeared to view their union drives as setting an example for other nonprofits and thus contributing to the early stages of a political movement.

These ideas align with Tambor’s writing on the unionization of social workers. “As trade unionists, social workers can find expression for their political commitment and values… [They] can use their labor organization’s resources to improve client services and join in progressive coalitions with the neighborhood and community groups.” For this type of nonprofit worker especially, union organizing was very much in line with a perception of what the nonprofit culture should be.

Racial Tension: A significant finding of this study is how frequently respondents raised racial tension and discrimination as issues. In some cases, staff heatedly reported on how “racist management” or long-standing racial divides among staff had contributed to the need for a union. In other cases, managers were angry or disparaging about what they viewed as the inflammation of racial conflict used as a union organizing strategy. Still others discussed organized labor’s own uneven record of racial inclusion in their remarks. In the super-charged, emotional environment of a union drive, race made compromise even harder to find. Combatants could not back down from their stances, and bitterness and anger sometimes lingered in the workplace following a union drive.

One of the key factors in anticipating union activity in an organization lies outside the organization itself: namely, the political climate of the city in which the nonprofit is located. In both San Francisco and New York, labor unions are important political players with money, votes, and influence. City officials often demonstrate support for labor by backing union demands during city contract negotiations and, of key importance to this study, by opposing the privatization of unionized civil service jobs.
Within an organization, the interviews suggest three factors that are often present when union drives begin. First of these is a dissatisfied, disgruntled staff working in a climate of resentment and conflict. As one board member noted, “We had a dysfunctional management structure, and people were talking union… Lots of time when you see union organizing, it’s a diagnostic indicator!” The second factor is the presence of government contracts as a significant source of funding. In some cases, government contracts provide an obvious comparison for staff between, for example, an MSW social worker under civil service, and an MSW social worker at a non-union nonprofit. An executive director with public and nonprofit staff working together in her organization called the arrangement “a slap in the face to the union” because it made the wage discrepancy so evident. The third factor some managers and board members brought up is that of inadvertently hiring union organizers. One executive director opposed to organizing warned, “The guy who was the coordinator for this staff group had been a union organizer elsewhere. I mean, read those resumes!”

The researchers identify two factors associated with organizing drives resulting in union recognition. The most obvious is that some boards elected to put up no resistance. In several cases in this study, once a union drive began, the board of directors moved to recognize the union without proceeding to an election. Conversely, antagonistic, provocative stances by management were frequently cited as factors that impelled neutral and undecided staff toward supporting the union. One case manager said of her executive director: “He could have been much more influential if he had shown any real openness. He provided information that was intentionally misleading about the benefits of unionization.”

There were few examples of union drives that failed to achieve union recognition in this study. As a union organizer said, “We never really lose elections. If it looks like we’re going to lose, we pull out.” However, the two situations in which drives did not result in recognition (one through union withdrawal and one through election) had some striking parallels. First, in both cases management opposed the union in an unapologetic and unemotional way. An executive director maintained, “It’s not a global discussion about values, or about unions, but about the effects on this organization.” Second, just as antagonistic tactics by management sometimes propelled neutral staff to pro-union stands, negative tactics by union organizers sometimes created a backlash from staff. “Their tactics and style just didn’t work here… the name-calling really turned people off,” noted the executive director of an organization whose staff ultimately rejected unionization.

The issue of unionization in the nonprofit sector, and particularly in human services, unexpectedly stands at the crossroads of many concerns. As the debate continues over balancing the delivery of services among the sectors, the issue of whether and how union workers will be delivering those services becomes increasingly important. Nonprofits and unions have traditionally been allies in matters such as plant closures, community services, addressing poverty, and education. But with decreased government funding, nonprofits and unions may soon find themselves on a collision course in the legislatures as well as in specific nonprofit workplaces.

Moreover, within the sector, the interviews present a profound management challenge: the notion of a nonprofit workplace as one that fosters participatory and mission-focused leadership appears difficult to maintain in the highly competitive waters that boards and executive directors now navigate. Indeed the same factors—government cutbacks, increasing community need, increased competition for funds—create both the conditions for unionization and pressure on management to oppose it. Beyond the many practical challenges that nonprofit executive directors and boards of directors face in responding to staff organizing, this study presents unionization as further complicating the critical task of articulating the sector’s compelling distinction.

A longer version of this article appeared in Nonprofit Leadership & Management (Spring 2000, 10(3): 305-317). Copies of the full report can be purchased at (www.compasspoint.org) or by calling CompassPoint at 415-541-9000.
Pfeffer, J. and A. Davis-Blake. 1990. “Unions and Job Satisfaction: An Alternate View.” Work and Occupations 17(August): 259-283.
Pynes, J.E. 1997. “The Anticipated Growth of Nonprofit Unionism.” Nonprofit Management and Leadership 7(4): 355-371.
Tambor, M. 1988. “The Social Service Union in the Workplace.” In H.J. Karger, ed., Social Workers and Labor Unions. New York, NY: Greenwood Press, pp. 83-96.

Jan Masaoka is executive director of CompassPoint, a nonprofit consulting and training organization with offices in San Francisco and San Jose, California. Jeanne Peters is budget director and a consultant with CompassPoint. She recently completed a master’s thesis on nonprofit unionization at the Institute for Nonprofit Organization Management at the University of San Francisco.