April 17, 2019; Willamette Week
Even nonprofits attempting to change social systems are themselves participants in those systems and must be held to the same standards they seek to promote. That is the message of labor leaders in Portland, Oregon, this week, where the employees at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) are fighting for the right to unionize.
According to Katie Shepherd at the Willamette Week, “IRCO employees are demanding better wages, consistent hours and more input in designing programs.” They have explored unionizing under the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), but the board and management of IRCO have opposed the union drive.
Executive Director Lee Po Cha, who is himself a former Hmong refugee, said,
We believe we would be failing in our role as community leader and employer if we did not reserve our right to provide our employees with additional information about what union representation could mean for them individually and what it could mean for IRCO, our clients and our mission. This is especially true given our unique workforce. Our employees have an incredibly diverse background, and for many of them, English is not their first language. They will expect that their leaders will provide information in a language that they can understand and in a culturally sensitive manner. We cannot abdicate that responsibility.
Former development associate Olivia Katbi Smith, who is an organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America and who was helping lead the unionizing effort, saw the board’s concerns differently. She tweeted, “So many good coworkers have been forced out of the organization over the past several months for [trying to unionize]. Management has created a culture of fear which they justify by insulting the intelligence of staff, saying they don’t really understand what a union is.”
Shepherd writes that starting in the 1970s, Portland has outsourced many of its social services to nonprofit contractors, including assisting refugees with education, job training, and translation and social services, which is what IRCO does.
Joe Baessler, political director of Oregon AFSCME Council 75, said, “they’re saving money on the backs of the workers. Those nonprofits pay those workers way less money, way less benefits, and you see that in the amount of turnover. A lot of those workers were AFSCME members [in the government] and then got contracted out.”
A quick look at IRCO’s form 990 shows that government is indeed their main source of revenue, and a significant area of growth. Just from 2016 to 2017, revenue from government grants jumped from about $13.5 million to $20.3 million. Over that same period, individual donations fell from nearly $1 million to under $500,000. NPQ has addressed how government contracts often cover program costs but not overhead; if Baessler and Shepherd are correct, IRCO’s employees’ suffering is at least partly a result of contract competition that drives cost-cutting.
Overall, IRCO seems to have community support. They do good and important work, and their leadership represents their constituents well; over 70 percent of board and staff members are themselves former immigrants or refugees. Even Katbi Smith said, “IRCO has such a good reputation in the community, to know they are union busting I think will come as a surprise to a lot of people.” For what it’s worth, employee reviews on the site glassdoor.com follow a similar pattern: Most praise the organization’s work but bemoan the low pay, especially for the lower-level employees who are themselves immigrants and people of color.
But as NPQ has frequently pointed out, if you as a nonprofit underpay or otherwise don’t support your staff, you are contributing to the problems that your organization and others are attempting to solve. Ruth McCambridge wrote that the claim that raising pay would ultimately harm the mission “exhibits not only a lack of vision and commitment to social change but also a misunderstanding of what is needed to build a sustainable and qualified workforce.” And as we wrote last week, it can be done; Minnesota’s nonprofit labor force made headlines for having wages higher than the public sector.
Other labor organizations have expressed their support for IRCO’s workers. Portland Jobs with Justice tweeted, “The intense and active union busting that IRCO has been engaging in is shameful. It is symptomatic of deep problems in the entire nonprofit industry. #UnionBustingIsDusgusting.” The Burgerville Workers Union added, “We don’t forget and we won’t back down. We stand with our fellow workers at IRCO and elsewhere as we fight for a better life. #1u #BoycottBurgerville.”—Erin Rubin