Labor Abuses in the Nonprofit Sector

(This is part two in a three part series on nonprofits, millennials, and labor unions)

As we discussed in last week’s column, millennials are facing a dire financial situation. Meanwhile, the popularity of labor organizing is higher than any other point in the past 15 years, with many millennials supporting unions regardless of their political affiliation.

The ever-risk adverse nonprofit sector often trails behind when it comes to adjusting to new trends. Considering the rocky track record that many nonprofits have with labor unions, it is worth taking a look at the organizational practices that could repel philanthropy’s rising, pro-labor millennial workforce.

Preparing for this will require reevaluating certain preconceptions. Nonprofits often hold unfeasible expectations during economic adversity. Even in an unfavorable market with diminished resources, the management and funders of mission-driven organizations will try and stay the course, slashing overhead while striving to render the same services and meet the same levels of productivity.

What is one of the primary means for cutting overhead? Unpaid work. Nonprofit management often pushes workers to put in overtime without adequate pay.

Take, for example, an ostensibly progressive nonprofit with an office in Philadelphia. I talked to a former employee who detailed a number of labor abuses that are simply astounding. The former employee explained that the staff was often expected to work over the weekends, but if anyone called in sick or had an emergency during the week, that person was docked pay.

In one situation, a colleague who had just worked through the weekend had to take his sick daughter to the ER on a Monday. Despite putting in more than enough hours to constitute a complete work day during the weekend, he had one-fifth of his weekly pay slashed as a result.

Additionally, the former employee explained that the Philadelphia office’s management lied to employees about having sick leave, something low-level employees learned at a training retreat when they talked to workers from a New England office who held the same job.

Nonprofits work to improve the world and promote the well-being and cultural enjoyment of their constituents. While the mission for each nonprofit is integral, it should not interfere with pro-social organizational practices that also demonstrate concern for employees’ welfare.

Mary Beth Hastings, an experienced nonprofit professional who has worked with health organizations around the world, discussed what made these sort of practices palatable for nonprofit leaders who — at least rhetorically — profess a dedication to the social good:

Too often, I have seen the passion for social change turned into a weapon against the very people who do much—if not most—of the hard work, and put in most of the hours. Because they are highly motivated by passion, the reasoning goes, they don’t need to be motivated by decent salaries or sustainable work hours or overtime pay…And how do you suppose that feels to young professionals with a college or graduate degree, living in a group house and barely affording student loan payments?

Nonprofits cannot simply will more resources into existence to get the job done. They can, however, enact sensible and fair organizational practices that enable younger workers to enjoy a modicum of security and a decent work-life balance. What may seem like a steep overhead cost upfront will be paid back through a dedicated workforce that trusts its leadership and makes enough to pursue its passions.

Help the People and Animals Impacted by the Southern California Wildfires

The images emerging from California are horrifying. Six separate wildfires are currently blazing through Southern California, having destroyed up to 170,000 acres of land to date.

The long-term ramifications – both economic and environmental – will be staggering. Furthermore, serious conversation concerning climate change is more urgent than ever, as its negative effects impact more and more people’s lives each year.

While these tasks are monumental, there are small ways that you can help right now. Consider making a gift to one or more of the following organizations in order to help the people and animals harmed by these horrendous fires.

Ventura County Animal Services

United Way of Ventura County

Human Society of Ventura County

The Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation

Millennials, Labor Unions, and Nonprofits

It’s no secret: millennials are earning less than their parents.

Some analyses put the decline in earnings around 20 percent. This is particularly debilitating for a generation that also possesses more student debt than its predecessors.

The reasons for the millennial wage slump are complicated. Older US citizens are working beyond retirement. Automation and cheap labor markets overseas have contributed to a (likely permanent) decline in US manufacturing. Highly profitable tech companies often make it big with small staffs.

There is also, of course, the “precariat”: the rise of non-salaried workers. This informal gig economy – embodied by the likes of Uber and Lyft – makes use of irregular employees to generate big profits. These explosive profits are incredibly stratified, with contractors at the bottom receiving no benefits and unpredictable compensation while those on top reap immense rewards.

While some pundits may contend that the gig economy is not meant to provide long-term employment, but rather serve as a stop-gap measure, the fact remains that economic opportunity is more diminished than any other point in modern history. People are landing in the gig economy and getting stuck in it.

This situation may be one of the reasons behind the surge in popularity of unions.

As of August, 61 percent of US citizens support labor unions, the highest rate in nearly 15 years.  Millennials no doubt play a huge role in this trend. Bernie Sanders, the most popular 2016  presidential candidate among millennials, was staunchly pro-union, and nearly 50 percent of Republican millennials support unions. That is an astonishing development showing a bipartisan trend in favor of labor organizing.

Unions are trying to take advantage of the change in public opinion, introducing social activism into their activities in order to attract millennials who value social justice. This was on display in January, 2017 when the New York Taxi Workers Alliance helped blockade access to JFK International Airport in response to Donald Trump’s travel ban on Muslims.

While companies in the sharing economy should take heed, so too should another part of the economy that has a fraught track record with unions: the nonprofit sector.

Nonprofits have struggled with unions and labor laws in recent years. Recall that large nonprofits such as U.S. PIRG opposed Obama’s overtime measure that would have guaranteed fair compensation for workers putting in more than 40 hours a week (note: a federal judge eventually blocked the rule, and the Department of Justice under Trump has since dropped the measure).

While U.S. PIRG was among many nonprofits that opposed the rule change, the organization has a particularly unfortunate history of anti-labor practices. For instance, a canvassing office in Los Angeles linked to the organization was abruptly shuttered and its employees let go after its staff decided to unionize. In 2012, yet another U.S. PIRG-affiliated office located in Portland fired employees who tried to organize with Communications Workers of America, resulting in a lawsuit that appeared before National Labor Relations Board.

Nonprofits are mission-based, the reasoning goes, so their employees should be mission-driven as opposed to profit-driven. Even if this approach lowers overhead and frees up resources for programmatic activities, does it truly fulfill a nonprofit’s general commitment to promoting social welfare?

In the next two posts on Nonprofit Pro Media, we will take a look at the intersection of millennials, nonprofits, and labor unions. Check in next week for a breakdown on labor abuses in the nonprofit sector.

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