As Nonprofits Face Uncertain Times, Some Employees Look to Unionize

Hope Community workers are bargaining their first union contract after winning voluntary recognition from the Minneapolis nonprofit in July.

The new bargaining unit, organized with Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild – TNG-CWA Local 37002, brings together 10 frontline workers.

They announced their victory in a video posted on social media, calling themselves “part of the increasing number of nonprofit workers joining organized labor because we believe that our power plus your power equals more power.”

Hope Community works out of the city’s Phillips neighborhood. Frontline employees work in the community to find alternatives to development through gentrification, and to grow a network of leaders who work for racial and economic equity.

The work requires long hours and is often stressful, Hope parks and power organizer Shruti Kamisetty said. And like many jobs in the nonprofit sector, the wages are low.

“Everyone should get paid more,” Kamisetty said.

And she doesn’t just mean everyone in her bargaining unit.

Kamisetty, who has been on staff at Hope for almost two years, wants the union drive and contract campaign at Hope to be a catalyst for more worker power in the local nonprofit community, and many of her co-workers feel the same, she said.

“We have our grievances specific to Hope, but our campaign can’t be divorced from other (nonprofit) organizations,” Kamisetty said. “We’re grounded in our issues, but we’re going to use that as fodder and fuel to help others organize.”

Local union organizers report an increasing level of interest among nonprofit workers in collective bargaining recently.

In fact, Hope Community is the second nonprofit to unionize this summer. In June, employees of Jewish Community Action, a local nonprofit committed to racial and economic justice, won representation with Local 12 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU).

Members of the seven-person bargaining unit include community organizers, a business and office manager, a communications director and an outreach and engagement manager. In a statement, they said they are looking forward to bargaining a first contract with JCA.

“We repair the world as a ‘bnai brit’ – covenantal partners,” union members said. “Forming a union binds us in covenantal relationship with one another and commits us to take responsibility for one another as fellow workers. It also allows us to make more explicit the implicit covenant that forms our relationship with JCA as an organization and with our members.

“We are looking forward to entering this new covenant, one that brings us all towards a just world, together.”

Ripe for organizing? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the local nonprofit landscape. The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits estimates organizations statewide saw their revenue drop by $1 billion in April alone.

Nonprofit workers have been hit hard by the budget problems. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported in July that roughly a third of nonprofit employees in Minnesota had filed for unemployment benefits since the coronavirus outbreak reached the state.

Even before the pandemic, workers at nonprofits like Hope – advocacy, arts, environmental and social service organizations – were seeing lower pay than workers in both the for-profit and public sectors. Median pay for nonprofit workers, excluding those at hospitals, clinics and colleges, was about $18 per hour in 2018.

(MN Department of Employment and Economic Development)

Making a career of nonprofit work, Hope workers say, usually means going into management. And climbing the ladder requires learning to squeeze as much programming as possible out of limited resources, while finding favor with the powerful foundations and donors who fund nonprofit work.

Workers closest to the mission, parks and power lead organizer Jake Virden said, are too often left without a seat at the table in nonprofit decisions. And that makes the industry ripe for union organizing.

“The people who drive the nonprofit ecosystem are billion-dollar foundations,” Virden said. “And yet a lot of our co-workers are working two or three jobs, part-time jobs on weekends or after work at Hope.

“There’s this idea we are acting out of our values or our mission. But I think a lot of people are waking up to the idea that there are these big pots of money, billions of dollars, and it’s the people who are well connected setting policies and agendas. But it’s the youth workers, the health care workers, the policy workers on the ground, doing the grunt work, who have good ideas and a lot to say, who are really shut out.”

A voice for workers 

Having won recognition of their union from Hope Community’s board of directors – a process Kamissety described as “not super smooth” – workers are turning their attention to the first contract. In addition to higher wages, they plan to seek greater clarity regarding expectations and disciplinary procedures.

They will also be looking for a bigger voice in the organization’s decision making. Virden said that for many of his colleagues, their lack of voice at work hit home during a recent all-staff meeting to discuss proposed changes to Hope’s mission statement. “What became clear to us was we were the very last people to see this mission statement, and it was already written,” he said. “The meeting was for us to just check the box.

“We’re the ones who do the work of the organization. All the grant money, accolades, prestige – it comes from the work we do in the community. So how is it management, the board and outside consultants have seen this document before we did?”

If it happened to them, it’s probably happening to workers at other nonprofits. That’s why, although their own organizing drive may be over, Hope workers haven’t stopped talking about the power of a union in the nonprofit workplace.

“I never thought about myself as a worker until we started our union campaign,” Kamissety said. “I’m working. I’m getting a wage. I depend on this wage to support myself. Yet I never thought of myself as a worker. So I’m very invested in making sure my friends, people at other nonprofits, know everyone can unionize.”

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