5 – Non-profit Unions – equity for overlooked workers

By Jack Meeks

I’m helping to organize a union at the non-profit where I work and I think unionized non-profits can play an important part in the transition to a more just, non-exploitative society. Non-profits play an interesting and dual role in capitalist society. They provide social services and lobby for progressive social change, while at the same time allowing rich individuals and corporations to avoid paying the taxes. Non-profits’ role has become more important as the state has slashed social services. Non-profits let entrepreneurs who’ve gotten rich exploiting workers to push their visions of what social change should look like. 

Unions for non-profit workers can help influence the direction of social change that non-profits are advancing. As many people work in the non-profit sector for idealistic reasons, non-profit union drives can not just help workers, but improve the local communities where non-profits are located. Most unions primarily just negotiate wages, benefits, and working conditions with employers, but non-profit unions can help make the connection of workplace issues relating to a social agenda which then can possibly advance a broader political struggle. 

I work for a non-profit that answers the phones for 988, the new national suicide phone number. My employer is a good organization and provides a socially needed service. We have a core staff of on-call program associates who answer the phones, however the vast majority of the people who answer the phone are volunteers.

Unions are regarded by those seeking revolutionary change as a way of achieving transformation, improving class consciousness, and of course winning demands. Many non-profits are unionized.

We are in the beginning stages of forming a non-profit union with help from SEIU 1021. Tides.org is a San Francisco Bay Area non-profit that has had a successful union drive and now has a collective bargaining agreement with SEIU 1021. SEIU uses community unionism that pursues change outside the workplace in coalition with other like-minded community groups. 

Organizing a union at my job is a challenge as most workers, including me, work remotely. Organizing communications are usually done by personal emails and to some extent via chat while working, without mentioning the specific subject, just when to be in touch. We are a program of larger non-profit Felton.org, which is hostile to the idea of unions and has hired an anti-union law firm to advise them. Working remote adds a little zest and flavor to the union organizing effort as it requires us to be more creative in making contacts and communicating with them. 

Answering calls from suicidal people can be very stressful and demanding, however there are many times when after a shift, you feel like you have changed the world, come alive, and feel like you are on fire! The work we do is very different than most jobs, however the organ-ization of the non-profit itself is very much on the traditional business model. We provide a valuable service and workers deserve social justice and more control over our work lives. 

There has been an influx of funds to the organization since the 988 suicide hotline was created, leading to promises about raises, new equipment, etc. While a job like this cannot just be about the money one makes by working, there have been no increases in pay for years. The work site moved to a new luxurious office which is really about what management wants and is for them. The top-down work rules for dealing with our clients have more to do with management getting their numbers to look good for the 988 funding rather than making the organization client-centered. I think the important decisions about the workflow should be in the hands of the workers who take the calls. The work schedule is another issue since we are on duty 24/7. On nights where there is a full moon, there is a conscious effort to have more people on staff that night!

The 2022 Univ. of California academic workers’ strike won up to a 50% pay raise. Public school teachers unions have also won big victories recently. In one of the recent Republican presidential debates, one of the candidates claimed teachers unions were the biggest problem in America. Margaret Thatcher when she was British prime minister called unions “the enemy within.” The powers that be do not like it when the workers are organized. 

One of the more interesting slogans in the New School action was: “Labor of love is still Labor  No more unpaid work.” There is the idea that those who work for non-profits ought to have satisfaction and be content in the work that they do. I think we should have the same workers’ rights that those in other parts of the economy have. Some of the non-profits that already have unions are the ACLU, the Groundwork Collaborative, and Ecology Center of Berkeley – Farmer’s Market workers (IWW)

The Berkeley Federation of Teachers told me that they may be able to help with the union formation at my workplace by giving us solidarity and support. There has been a surge in union activity in many sectors of the economy including the service industry — Starbucks, Chipotle, and Peet’s Coffee. The increase in union organizing and strikes isn’t just about pay issues but also work rules and employer practices. 

Unions play a critical role in reducing income inequality. One of the best ways to achieve a more egalitarian society is to make union organizing easier for workers. Unions are a social justice movement that can enlist the help of communities to gain support and publicity for causes like the United Farm Workers (UFW). 

The number of strike actions has been increasing nationwide and this helps workers believe that they can have a successful union drive through organizing and work stoppages. There were 180 work stoppages in the first part of 2022 which is close to the average number of 330 strikes a year during the large social movements years of 1967-1976. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) saw a 57% increase in union election petitions between 2021-2022. 

Capitalism is inherently crisis-prone because the capitalist economy’s relentless drive for accumulation results in its own destabilization. This is why we need worker self-management and changes in how the political power is allocated. We need non-profit unions, cooperatives and Community Unionism as strategies for any future society.