Think-Tank Workers Think About Joining Union

Feb. 21, 2018, 2:25 PM

Staffers at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities are looking to join the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, a burgeoning group with almost a dozen nonprofits under its umbrella.

CBPP management and the union are finalizing talks on card check recognition at the nonpartisan research institute in hopes of achieving voluntary recognition, Alan Barber, the president of the NPEU, told Bloomberg Law.

The unit would be the 12th group to join the NPEU if the campaign is successful and the third to join in two years. This progress at the CBPP is indicative of a wider trend of organizing in the nonprofit and professional sector, Barber said, even as unionization rates in other sectors decline.

Overall the U.S. unionization rate remained at a record low 10.7 percent in 2017, but union membership in the traditionally nonunion professional and technical sectors grew by nearly 90,000 members, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Twenty-five percent of the 6.15 million professional union members were aged 18 to 34 in 2017, and millennials seem to be a major guiding force in the growth of these unions, Professor Charlotte Garden of the Seattle University School of Law told Bloomberg Law.

Shannon Buckingham, CBPP vice president for communications and external affairs, confirmed that the research institute is engaged in discussions with a staff organizing committee but didn’t provide additional comments.

NPEU Contract Gains

The NPEU is part of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. The IFPTE is one of the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees’ 24 affiliate unions representing professional and technical employees.

With the addition of the CBPP, individual membership at the NPEU will grow from 250 to about 335, Katie Barrows, the communications and research associate for DPE, said. Researchers, administrative assistants, IT workers, and communications staffers make up the prospective unit at the CBPP.

For the most part, nonprofit workers organizing with the NPEU have sought a clearer breakdown of management policies on issues including diversity and employee discipline in contracts, as well as higher pay, Barber said.

Nonprofit organizing isn’t a new phenomenon, Cornell University’s Kate Bronfenbrenner said. Bronfenbrenner is the director of Labor Education Research there. Social workers, nonprofit hospitals, and public universities have been a focus of union organizing going back to the 1970s and 1980s, but it appears that think tanks like the CBPP are the new focus.

The nature of these nonprofits, where head researchers serve as supervisors, might result in small gains for unions. But supervisors can’t organize and “an awful lot of people are managers,” Bronfenbrenner said.

The NPEU has also organized the Center for American Progress and the Economic Policy Institute.

Millennials Believe in Causes, Want ‘Voice’

With the recent organizing successes at Vice Media, Vox, and Slate, the prospect of joining a union has become intriguing to some office workers who might have considered unionizing more appropriate for the manufacturing sector, Garden said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see more nonprofit staff unionizing, like we see more media outlets unionizing,” she said.

Millennial workers have a more positive opinion of unions and see them as an opportunity to have a collective voice in the office, she said.

Approximately 64 percent of those surveyed by DPE in the 21-34 age range said they would support a proposal for a union at their current jobs.

Young professionals have reached out to the NPEU with an interest in organizing, more so than their older counterparts, Barber said.

Nonprofit Employers Are Different Breed

Management has seen this trend, too, Peter Finch, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine, said. His firm works with a number of nonprofit employers seeking assistance as their workforces unionize.

In Finch’s experience, nonprofit employers tend to be progressive and don’t put up a big fight when employees organize, he said. But that’s not always the case.

In some instances, employees telling management they want a union could create a negative environment, he said. Management, for example, may feel that a union interferes with the close-knit environment of the office.

“It becomes an us-versus-them mentality” where once the staff were all in the mission together and now not so much, he said.

Nonprofit organizations could also struggle with meeting the provisions of a union contract as an employer with scarcer resources than a for-profit company, he said.

In a typical nonunion setting, an employment decision like terminating or disciplining an employee could be settled with a one-on-one conversation. In a unionized setting, that would change to establishing a grievance and arbitration procedure with the union.

Those extra steps possibly mean hiring new staff or spending more resources, which a nonprofit could find difficult to achieve, he said.

The success of the NPEU could serve as the “canary in the coal mine for other nonprofits,” Finch said. Other organizations could learn from these latest cases and see what pushed employees to seek union representation. That way they could make their own improvements before their employees unionized, he said.

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