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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