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Nonprofit Workers Turn to Unions During Pandemic Uncertainty

May 11, 2020, 1:10 PM

Uncertainty fueled by the coronavirus pandemic has sped up a growing number of nonprofit workers joining unions.

From environmental justice organizations to political advocacy groups, nonprofit employees are turning to organized labor to achieve a greater say in how their organizations are run. And unions in turn are capitalizing on the newfound interest to shore up low levels of unionization in the nonprofit industry and provide a boost to their membership.

“We know our organization already has high standards and a commitment to things like gender equity, professional development—but we still want that seat at the table, not only for workers’ benefits but also in terms of the direction of the organization,” said Rikki Baker Keusch, an employee at the nonprofit organization J Street where a union campaign was announced last month. “And also, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the urgency has really spurred us on.”

In a 16-day span last month, seven workplaces announced organizing campaigns with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, a local of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. The local’s number of bargaining units grew 35% in less than a month.

“The coronavirus kind of put a little bit of a crunch and pressure on people that I think has motivated them to work a little bit faster and want to organize their workplace unions just because of the uncertainty that the coronavirus presents,” NPEU President Kayla Blado said.

The Office and Professional Employees International Union also said uncertainty around Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has led to more nonprofit organizing leads.

The uptick in organizing contrasts with what remains an overall lack of unionized nonprofit jobs.

No official statistics exist on unionization in the nonprofit industry, but the percentage of union members in the nonprofit-heavy sector of civic, social, and advocacy organizations, as well as grant-making and giving services, hovered around 1% to 3% over the last 10 years, according to census data.

“This is an industry that’s currently unrepresented by labor, and making inroads into nonprofit worker groups has remained a challenge for organizers,” Bloomberg Law analyst Robert Combs said. “But unions that reach the National Labor Relations Board election stage have had success.”

Influx of Resources

Unions have organized nonprofit workers for decades, but the effort has become a national priority for the OPEIU and NPEU recently.

Several local unions already were doing nonprofit organizing at the OPEIU, but the union kept receiving organizing leads at the national level it couldn’t pursue, according to OPEIU Director of Organizing Cynthia Schu.

“We just didn’t have the capacity,” Schu said. “And it was really frustrating because we knew there were nonprofit workers really wanting to have a voice.”

Three years ago, the union made nonprofit unionizing a priority at the national level with increased organizing resources. The OPEIU represents “several thousand” nonprofit workers, primarily concentrated on the East and West coasts with an expanding reach in other parts of the country, according to Schu.

The NPEU, which currently has 27 bargaining units at varying stages of recognition, also refocused its efforts on organizing nonprofit workers in recent years. The union, previously known only as IFPTE Local 70, was founded in 1998 to represent workers at the Economic Policy Institute. It went through a rebrand two years ago, adopting its current name and commitment to attracting more nonprofit leads.

“We thought to make it clearer and make it more known that nonprofits’ employees could have a union,” NPEU Vice President of Communications Katie Barrows said. “I think there was a lot of people out there that didn’t realize that and now they do.”

The organizers at NPEU now receive a lead a day on average for new potential bargaining units, Barrows said.

Seeking a Voice

Nonprofit workers often unionize seeking more transparency on decisions made by management and a greater voice on the job, Schu said.

“If workers are asked to empower their clients, it’s difficult to do when they are not themselves empowered,” the organizing director said.

Jennifer Bock, a staff member at the nonprofit environmental group Friends of the Earth, said her workplace needed to unionize to more fully embody the organization’s ideals. Friends of the Earth workers announced their intent to unionize with NPEU on April 29.

“Sometimes we don’t think of ourselves as having enough of a reason to unionize compared to other workers,” Bock said. “And I think that we in the end decided that this is something that if we’re going to really live out our values truly to the ‘T’ that we need to be doing.”

‘Highly Resistant’ Organizations

Nonprofit groups aren’t always receptive to union organizing campaigns or shows of collective action.

An organizing campaign at the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center—a civil rights legal advocacy organization—grew tense late last year when management refused to voluntarily recognize an organizing campaign and brought on a law firm seen as specializing in “union avoidance.”

The global human rights group Amnesty International USA came under federal scrutiny last year when it was alleged to have threatened workers after they petitioned to pay the organization’s interns. The NLRB ruled in November that the nonprofit didn’t break federal labor laws because interns aren’t employees, so the worker action wasn’t protected activity.

“There are some organizations that are receptive but in many cases management at non-profits is highly resistant to unionizing efforts,” City University of New York professor Ruth Milkman said by email. The result is a potential for tension, especially since nonprofits have a disproportionate number of young and educated staff who tend to lean more pro-union than the overall population, according to the sociologist.

Six of the seven nonprofit organizations where NPEU announced organizing campaigns last month indicated they would voluntarily recognize their unions.

Friends of the Earth’s board and management is in discussions over the voluntary recognition request, according to a statement from FOE President Erich Pica. He added that the organization “believes that unions strengthen our democracy and play a positive role in the workplace.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Wallender in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Hardy at; Martha Mueller Neff at