It’s a Terrible Sign When More Nonprofit Employees Join Labor Unions

Are labor unions really necessary today? A growing number of nonprofit employees think they are. That should serve as a wake-alarm for the nonprofit sector. It’s a terrible sign that should concern everyone involved in the charity sector.

A new report in the Star Tribune reveals that the staff at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, the largest statewide nonprofit association in the country, has scheduled a vote to unionize in April. Staff at Minnesota’s Walker Art Center and Jewish Community Action have already unionized.

Dan Sassenberg, CFRE, Director of Advancement Services at Luther Seminary, shared the Star Tribune article on LinkedIn.  He identified a number of issues facing nonprofit employees, particularly fundraisers, that a union might be able to help address:

The expectation that folks work 45-60 hours every week (I have been given this expectation); non-transparent, inadequate benefits and pay; organizations refusing to cut ties with racist and sexist donors; expecting responses to emails on the weekend; sometimes extensive after-hours work engagements with no downtime during the week to compensate; folks fearing that they can’t be seen to be away from their desk unless they have a donor visit on the calendar; no professional development, etc.”

Amber Davis, a Nonprofit Services Assistant at MCN, told the Star Tribune that the unionization effort has been a “long time coming” and enjoys majority support. She says that reasons the staff seeks to unionize “include limited transparency on policy changes, dismissive behavior toward workers, and high turnover.”

While Davis and Sassenberg have identified some legitimate concerns that nonprofit employees have, it is nevertheless unfortunate that this is leading to growing interest in unionization when there is a better solution: more effective management.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should let you know that I have mixed feelings about labor unions. Historically, they have often been corrupt, racist, controlling, violent, and over-reaching. On the other hand, they have struggled successfully for a shorter workweek, better pay, and safer working conditions, among other important things.

As the labor movement has scored major successes, as government legislation has changed workplace conditions, and as companies have grown more responsive to their employees, people have been less interested in being part of a labor union. According to 2020 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 6.3 percent of private-sector workers are members of a union, down from 16.8 percent in 1983. That would seem to indicate that the vast majority of Americans do NOT think unions are necessary to worker wellbeing.

While the overall private-sector unionization trend has been downward, the fact that the nonprofit sector is witnessing greater interest in unionizing is troubling because it indicates that something is wrong with employer-employee relationships as Davis and Sassenberg have observed.

I believe, based on personal experience, that labor unions, while they can be useful, should NOT be necessary. If employers build strong, caring relationships with employees and are responsive to their needs, employees will not see a need to unionize. Employers should seek to build healthy organizations by ensuring employee satisfaction. Let me tell you my story.

When I owned a successful, pioneering telephone fundraising company, I learned that my employees were considering unionization. This was many years after the company was started and during a period of rapid growth. My business partner and I quickly realized that our corporate culture had suffered during our growth phase and that we had somewhat neglected our relationship with staff.

Rather than reacting defensively, we chose to see the budding unionization effort as an opportunity to reconnect with our employees. We assembled our managers to learn what they were hearing. Then, we met with employees to discover what was driving them toward unionization.

Interestingly, the number one complaint we heard was that the employees had asked their managers for sanitizing supplies for their workstations, and no such supplies were provided. After hearing this and on that same day, my partner and I made sure the cleaning supplies were provided. We also let the staff know we were committed to addressing their other concerns and needs. In addition, we re-established the company’s original culture when we instituted an open-door policy along with an escalation procedure for employees to use in order to appeal the decisions of managers.

By listening to staff, valuing them and making them feel valued, being responsive, being transparent, being communicative, being caring, and fulfilling our promises, we were able to avoid the unionization of our staff while having happier employees.

Coincidentally, a nonprofit fundraising call center in the city did unionize around the same time. Staff complaints continued as working conditions improved only slightly. Many of the nonprofit’s unionized employees eventually came over to work in our non-union call center where they found conditions much more to their liking.

For far too long, many nonprofit organizations have taken advantage of staff. Poor pay, long hours, intrusions into personal lives, unrealistic goals, limited opportunities for promotion, lack of investment in professional growth, discrimination, sexual harassment, problematic workplace environments, revolving doors are just some of the problems faced by nonprofit employees. While these conditions are not unique to the nonprofit sector, that is not an excuse for not dealing with these issues and others.

I find the news of unionization in the nonprofit sector to be troubling. It is a sign that employers are not showing their employees the respect and caring they deserve. The best way to keep employees from joining a union is to stop treating them poorly. Instead, listen, respond, care. Employees should not feel they have no recourse but to unionize. Unionization should be seen as a last resort, one that can be avoided when employers and employees create relationships built on mutual respect. That’s the best way to meet worker needs while strengthening the organization and creating the ability to better fulfill the nonprofit’s mission.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

4 Comments to “It’s a Terrible Sign When More Nonprofit Employees Join Labor Unions”

  1. Lagging wages for decades in the nonprofit sector, horrible fringe benefits, little professional development, and no signs of it being otherwise, yes, unions must be an option to explore, especially at the largest nonprofits. Unions have been a key elevator in helping the working class for decades.

    • Laurence, thank you for sharing your thoughts although I’m not sure if you missed the point of my post or if you’re agreeing with me. So, I’ll take this opportunity to underscore my main point. While joining a labor union remains a viable option for employees, nonprofit life would be better for everyone if organization managers would wake up and do better for their staffs thereby rendering unionization unnecessary. That should be the ideal that the nonprofit sector aspires to.

  2. Great article and brings back memories indeed. Part of joining a nonprofit as an employee is (or should be) your commitment to its mission . Because the mission is not to make money and the hope is simply not to lose too much no NPO employee should have a reasonable expectation to have the same or comparable wages, salary, and benefits to a similar position in the for profit sector. In a sense, as an employee, you are making a contribution with forgone wages and benefits. Within this backdrop, however, some NPO’s can seek to take advantage of the goodwill of their employees and become exploitative of their time and energy — or simply become too large and uncaring that the bond of employee to mission is broken. This is where the problems arise, I think.

    • Steve, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I just want to stress that financial compensation was not a stated motivating factor for the employees of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits as they move toward unionization. Instead, the stated reasons “include limited transparency on policy changes, dismissive behavior toward workers, and high turnover.” Of course, the motivation of other employees at other organizations might be quite different and might include compensation issues.

      While I agree with you that nonprofit employees should not expect the same level of financial compensation as their for-profit counterparts, I do not believe that means they should accept dramatically lower compensation or, at times, lower at all. Yes, nonprofit employees will not be entitled to profit sharing or stock options. However, they should be paid what they are worth. While a charity should want to employ people who believe passionately in its mission, the organization needs to understand it is not a religious order. To attract and retain highly skilled staff, the organization needs to pay at a competitive rate. Failure to do so causes a brain drain from a given charity as staff leave to seek greater compensation at another nonprofit. Furthermore, the entire nonprofit sector regularly loses great talent to the for-profit sector when it fails to compensate people competitively. Again, I’m speaking about competitive financial compensation, not necessarily equal.

      As I have previously reported, “Maclean’s [a Canadian news outlet] examined nearly 600 charities in Canada with gross revenue of over $2 million (Canadian $). The publication found charities that significantly overpaid or underpaid chief executives, relative to peer organizations, were less likely to be transparent or efficient. ‘Analysis of charity data suggests extremely high compensation is linked to poor results for charities. But intriguingly, so is extremely low compensation,’ according to the report. ‘High salaries receive the most attention, but Maclean’s found a stronger correlation with poor performance at charities that underpay their staff or have no staff at all.'” In other words, paying staff poorly results in poor organizational performance.

      Dan Pallotta has spoken about this phenomenon. You can find a transcript and recording of his TED Talk by clicking here. In his talk, Pallotta says, “Our generation does not want its epitaph to read, ‘We kept charity overhead low.'” Instead, he says we should want to conquer great challenges. In other words, charity work should be about outcomes. That means hiring highly skilled individuals. To do that requires offering competitive financial compensation.

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