Organizing the third sector

Nonprofits are the Third Sector because they are neither private for-profit corporations nor public agencies. Instead, nonprofits occupy the nebulous space of a private agency often operating with a large share of public funding in government grants and contracts. Many governments have followed suit with their corporate counterparts in decreasing payrolls, partially because of shrinking revenues and partially because of an unshakable faith in free markets being more efficient in delivering services.

This faith in the free market has given rise to the Third Sector and to large nonprofits such as Larkin Street Youth Services (LSYS) among many others. Many of the jobs in the nonprofit service sector used to be occupied by public sector employees. However, following the trend of trade union workers in the private sector having their jobs moved overseas, governments have found it increasingly more cost-effective to outsource the work of unionized public workers to privatized nonprofits, in which workers are often non-union with lower wages, less benefits, and more lax workplace regulations. The Third Sector has burgeoned in the shadow of retrenched governments, creating more incentive for governments to contract more social services out to this Third Sector.

If we are to stem the tide of ever-dwindling public resources in social services, public health, and education, then organizing the Third Sector is crucial to reversing the privatization of our service economy. If workers in the Third Sector have access to competitive wages, decent benefits, and better, more regulated working conditions, then governments would have less incentive to privatize those services in the first place, because they would not be considerably cheaper. Ultimately, organizing broadly across the Third Sector could create greater opportunities to demand more resources for all collectively. We could also forge strong alliances with our counterparts in the public sector who face severe pressures when there are at-will workers in the Third Sector “supposedly” able to do their jobs at a fraction of the cost. I say “supposedly” because it is ultimately our clients who get hurt by lack of resources, burnt out workers, and high turnover, all problems felt commonly throughout the Third Sector because a fraction of the cost often means a fraction of the care.

Unionization Efforts at LSYS

I have been a worker at Larkin Street Youth Services (LSYS) for two and a half years, originally as an Outreach Counselor and transferring later to the Education Department as a GED Instructor. When I started in fall 2010 at LSYS, I found myself embroiled in the tail-end of a failed unionization effort.

LSYS has greatly expanded in the last decade without much careful attention given to the wages, benefits, and working conditions of a growing workforce. For example, in 2011, despite multiple supplications to institute a Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) in response to years of stagnant wages and benefits, the agency ignored such requests and instead eliminated the best healthcare plan in terms of cost and coverage, only later increasing the base salary of all the counselors by $2,000, forcing workers to choose between more income or better health benefits. The pay increase did not affect education and employment specialists or case managers, and no plan has ever been detailed to raises the wages of all workers, let alone restore health benefits. Staffing ratios have also suffered severely as services have expanded. In the case of my old program, Outreach, as well as the Drop-In Center, both programs have actually had permanent staff positions cut in the past year alone, while a new Director position has been created. Perhaps most importantly, even though the legal rights of Third Sector workers are better protected in San Francisco than other parts of the country, being an at-will employee is still a highly vulnerable position. One can be disciplined or fired at almost any time for any reason with no due process. This is a grave concern of many workers, myself included, who have witnessed coworkers written up or fired for taking sick leave or not reporting even the most mundane details about clients. A union at LSYS would give us all a contract with due process protections, meaning management would have to establish just cause for terminations, and we would all be able to collectively bargain for better conditions for all of us and our clients.

Workers attempted to unionize at LSYS back in 2010. However, when I started working there, the unionizing attempt was already faltering. A coworker of mine put it best in describing our current efforts, “This time it really feels like we’re organizing. Last time, it just felt like protesting.” I would argue that this perception is largely due to the fact that this time around we built a strong foundation, whereas previously we were intently focused on forming a union, this time we have really focused on building worker power and solidarity, the union being the vehicle, not the driver, of change.

The following is a very broad roadmap toward building that solidarity with some specific examples ,where possible, from our campaign at LSYS.

“Learning” the Organization

The nice thing about nonprofits, even the larger ones like LSYS, is that these organizations still have a relatively small workforce. At LSYS, for example, at any given time, there are approximately 140 permanent staff and around 30-40 relief staff. The first and most essential step in organizing the Third Sector is to know everyone, front-line and management. Learn workers’ names and job titles, how long they have been with the agency, that which they like and do not like about their jobs, to whom they report and who reports to them, and whom they trust (more on this later).

On my very first day at LSYS, I asked for an Organizational Chart because I wanted to know how the hierarchy worked and who fell within which Divisions. The Employee Manual said that we would receive one in the New Hire Orientation, but it was not in my packet, so I requested one and had it sent via e-mail the next day. I read the full 30-page Employee Manual in the first week and the full 130-page Policies and Procedures Manual within the first six months. When our healthcare options were drastically cut in 2011, I pored over the premiums, deductibles, and coverage to contest the “sales pitch” made for our high-deductible HRA plan. When a new Employee Manual was issued in 2012, I read the whole thing in full while highlighting, compared it with the old manual, and then requested a meeting with our Chief Operations Officer to ask pointed questions about changes in language and omissions of certain sections. The new manual omitted any mention of the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance, which allows members of the public to access and review much of our budget. I was later able to point out this omission to other workers and to back up the veracity of any budgetary claims I made with, “Well, go see for yourself, if you don’t believe me.”

“Learning the organization” is the groundwork for mobilizing the workers because, as an organizer, one needs to be fully conversant in all the roles and responsibilities, all the policies, and all the changes in the organization, especially in a volatile workplace where turnover is often high and policies are arbitrary and subject to change quickly. Eventually, one must also become conversant in explaining the unionizing process, but to lay the groundwork for organizing the workers, one must learn how the organization ticks and which people make its heart beat.

Establishing Trust

Furthermore, putting confidentiality and discretion at the center of every interaction is important in creating a culture of mutual aid and protection. In the beginning of the campaign, a lot of folks would ask me who else was involved, and I would say frankly that we want to protect people, so I cannot give out names without their permission, but I would be able to indicate in rough numbers how many workers were involved as organizers. This level of confidentiality was less for the protection of workers already joining the ranks of organizing but more for demonstrating to newcomers that we were doing everything that we could to protect each other and avoid unwanted scrutiny from management.

Build a Diverse Base

The Third Sector functions off the labor of people from a lot of mixed backgrounds. Since getting a job in the Third Sector is considerably easier than surmounting higher barriers to employment in the public sector with its more stringent regulations for civil service, nonprofit work tends to attract everyone from younger, white college graduates as a stepping stone to long-term careers, to single parents putting themselves through college or graduate school while supporting a family, to slightly older workers of color who wish to give back to their communities, and to LGBT workers who can be safely and comfortably out in the very socially liberal atmosphere of the Third Sector. The Third Sector is often a very diverse workforce, representing varied class, age, racial, and sexual interests.

When beginning to assess other workers and building an organizing committee, do your best to build a diverse base and speak to the diversity of interests among the staff. At a place like LSYS, which has so many jobsites, we were also particularly focused on getting a diversity of people from different sites who would have different contacts. Having so many sites is at once a curse and a blessing because it means that we had to build an organizing committee among folks who would not normally interact very frequently, but the result was that we began to work better with people whom we would rarely see or talk to, and we started to learned more about the issues confronting staff at different sites, sometimes staffing levels, other times, purely low pay, and often, disciplinary fears. In attempting to build a diverse committee within the agency, we were able as organizers to speak to the myriad concerns that workers from remote corners of the agency had.

One cannot just grab anybody indiscriminately as an organizer though. LSYS has a very high turnover rate, approximately 60% last year in recent estimates from our HR Director. Therefore, the workers who have been around a little longer and who have learned how to advocate for themselves and youth strongly are the ideal candidates as organizers. We attempted to pick leaders throughout the agency who are strong youth advocates, strong worker advocates, and who had worked in different departments throughout the agency, a common occurrence at LSYS for myself and others on the organizing committee.

After the Foundation is Set

The foundation outlined above is just a foundation. The tactics deployed in any campaign must be unique to the agency, but workers in the Third Sector often share these common themes above: a more highly diversified workforce, a service sector reliant on trust to operate effectively, and often-changing workers and policies, which need to be actively learned. The next step is to actually garner union representation, but in my opinion, unionization is the result of strong worker solidarity, never the cause.