What do nonprofit leaders really think about unionization?

Here’s what current and former executives have to say.

Andrew Lichtenstein / Contributor - Getty

Over the last few years, a tidal wave of labor organizing has swamped the nonprofit sector in New York. Unions have been launched in organizations big and small, old and young, elite and grassroots. Bronx DefendersFilm ForumColor of ChangeThe Brooklyn MuseumHousing Works. The list goes on and on.

What do nonprofit executives think about this phenomenon? The conventional wisdom is best summarized by a piece from In These Times entitled A Quiet Frenzy of Union Organizing Has Gripped the Nonprofit World: “the management of most progressive nonprofits don’t want to be seen as anti-union (even if they wish that the union didn’t exist).”

Is this true? What do nonprofit leaders really think about nonprofit unionization? To get a better sense, I reached out to a half dozen current and former nonprofit executives to take their temperature. Offering anonymity in order to ensure candor, I asked them three questions:

What is driving the current wave of unionization?

The nonprofit executives I spoke with acknowledge that there are often legitimate reasons for employees to desire the protection of a union. Many frontline workers at nonprofits that perform direct service work receive wages that do not allow for a decent living in an expensive city like New York. (Not to mention how inflation has undercut purchasing power in recent months.) It is also true that, in many cases, these wages are effectively determined not by the executive directors of nonprofits, but by the government agencies that underwrite service provision and that often seek to purchase assistance at the cheapest rates possible. 

“Why is there such a push for unionization in NYC’s nonprofit sector?” asked one leader of a large social service agency. “Is it a response to the crappy funding of the organizations that do human services work? Is it because we have not communicated our challenges effectively? Is it because we are not generally understanding of the changing needs of our workforce and are stuck in a model that is long gone? I think it’s a bit of ‘all of the above.’”

The COVID-19 pandemic has only added fuel to staff concerns about wages and working conditions. For understandable reasons, many nonprofit managers struggled during the pandemic to find an effective balance between the need to continue to serve clients and the need to ensure the protection of staff. As a result, nonprofit workers were sometimes placed in situations where they had legitimate reasons to be concerned about their health and safety. While some agencies were able to offer “combat pay” to workers who faced these kinds of challenges, others were not.

Beyond traditional labor issues like salaries and workload, nonprofit executives identify a number of other factors that have contributed to the unionization push. One such factor is a generational shift in attitudes and expectations. The continued persistence of problems like racial disparities, sexual harassment, climate change, and economic inequality has disqualified many Baby Boomer and Gen X leaders in the eyes of younger workers. One nonprofit leader argues that Millennials and Gen Z staffers who attended elite colleges may be entering the workforce with unrealistic expectations: “The extremely high quality of life at certain schools, driven by the college arms race, means that the gulf between the life you live as a senior in college and the life you live that first year that you’re cast out of the kingdom is starker than ever.”

Another nonprofit executive traces the unionization trend to the election of Donald Trump: “There was so much anger at Trump. Everyone wanted to be on the side of the righteous fighting the powers that be. But Trump was so far away and seemed untouchable. Unionization has offered nonprofit workers a chance to play this role close to home.”

Finally, nonprofit leaders point to social media as an accelerant of unionization, noting that it is easier than ever to both stoke outrage and organize large and disparate groups of people.

Are there advantages to unionization?

Nonprofit management has improved in many respects over the past generation, but this improvement has been far from uniform. Many nonprofits are dependent upon a single, charismatic leader who is responsible for both raising money and overseeing staff, which is often a recipe for bad management. And many nonprofits lack the kinds of infrastructure and operating systems that are necessary to ensure fair pay for employees and the graceful handling of HR issues.

Nonprofit leaders are not ignorant of these defects. According to one executive of a small agency, “When a nonprofit is not treating employees fairly, isn't transparent or equitable in hiring or salaries, or is otherwise missing the mark, an employee union can be an excellent way to put things back on track.” Another nonprofit leader adds: “If you have an organization that treats people poorly or tries to weed out older, more expensive employees, a union can serve as a bulwark against those tendencies.”

If a nonprofit organization is publicly funded, a union can be a valuable asset. “Unions have the ability to do legislative and policy advocacy from a different point of view,” says one nonprofit executive director. “They could, in theory, assist in getting adequate funding from government sources. This requires the union to essentially partner with the organization to identify priorities and needs.” 

In some situations, a union can also help bring clarity and stability to labor relations. One nonprofit manager says, “The union is responsible for attending to the staff’s needs and raising issues as part of their overall function, including salary and benefits. When the staff is not happy with their salary and benefits, their union has negotiated their package. Management may have some ‘cover’ as a result. This may mean that morale is better.” Indeed, unions often have a better understanding of the real-world economics of running a nonprofit than individual staff members, who may have wholly unrealistic ideas about what is possible when they enter salary negotiations. As one nonprofit executive explains: “You can’t get water from a stone.” 

Labor unions are often portrayed as radical (or at least liberal) in the popular press. But nonprofit leaders often see the influence of unions on day-to-day operations as fundamentally conservative. And sometimes that can be a good thing. According to one nonprofit executive, “Our union is instinctually suspicious of faddish thinking and focused on getting the basic work of the agency done. There’s real power in that commonsensical outlook.”

Do unions make it more difficult to achieve the goals of nonprofits?

In general, nonprofit leaders who have worked with unionized workforces think that unionization not only makes their jobs more challenging, it also makes it more challenging to achieve the goals of the organization. “The union is its own nonprofit that has a different mission than the employer,” says one nonprofit manager. “This can lead to conflicts that threaten the organization's mission.”

Another nonprofit leader agrees: “It’s easy to advance reasons why a union may undermine an organization’s effectiveness. Management is not making all of the decisions alone – another ‘body’ is looking after the interests of the workforce and their interests may differ from management’s. Union leadership may not understand management’s goals or agree with them.” 

Three concerns come up regularly when nonprofit leaders talk about unions:

  1. Resisting new ideas: “On the negative side, it is true that the union is suspicious of change and resistant to innovation.”
  2. Lowering standards: “In my limited experience, unions tend disproportionately to protect the underperforming. This then creates a challenge for the high performers who are unavoidably lumped in with everyone else to create a mean.”
  3. Undermining collegial culture: “The legal framework on unionization is literally 90 years old and based on a presumed antagonism between for-profit industrial employers and laborers. This adversarial framework can be destructive when introduced into a nonprofit context.

This final point is one that non-profit leaders return to over and over again. One frustrated executive complains, “Unions pit themselves against the organization as a way to organize the employees. This includes fomenting generalized discontent, feeding the flames of trivial grievances, and insulting supervisors and managers (such as insinuating that they don’t “care” about the staff). This ends up changing the dynamic of the organization from one that was a strong team feel to a very divided ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ atmosphere.”

Despite this litany of complaints, nonprofit executives have thus far not offered much organized resistance to the current wave of unionization. (One notable exception: the recent Human Services Council lawsuit opposing a new law passed by the City Council that seeks to make it easier for staffers at social service organizations to join unions.)

Nonprofit leaders are reluctant to speak out against unionization for a variety of reasons, including a fear of antagonizing employees and fomenting a wave of negative attention on social media. This prudent approach probably makes sense for each individual executive. But, taken as a whole, it is a mistake. Open and vibrant conversation is essential to making smart policy decisions in a democratic society. Nonprofit leaders’ failure to offer an honest assessment of unionization impoverishes the public conversation and, in the long run, is a disservice to the nonprofit sector as a whole.