Is it Time for a Nonprofit Workers Union?

(Image: SEIU Local 1, Creative Commons)

Many nonprofit employees have experienced it before: management justifies cutting overhead costs—including a host of employee benefits—in order to free up resources for programmatic spending.

Organizational leadership often perceives their workers as mission-driven as opposed to profit-driven, an exact corollary to the economic model behind nonprofits. In reality, this mentality contradicts the very purpose of nonprofits to promote and cultivate the social good. How can any nonprofit truly pursue its mission to improve the world if it requires implementing anti-social practices to do so?

Exploited YMCA workers in Chicago fought back in early March against such labor abuses. Unionized childcare workers represented by SEIU went on a one-day strike to protest poverty-level wages, extreme salary stratification, and unreasonable work expectations due to chronic staffing shortages.

The workers’ various complaints are fundamentally intertwined. Low wages and strenuous work hours create high turnover rates (a problem that affects the entire nonprofit sector), which consequently raises the workloads and expectations of the workers who remain on staff.

The strike shut down 10 early childhood sites run by the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, interfering with the organization’s mission to provide for its marginalized constituents. There are no easy answers to the economic plight that many nonprofits like the YMCA face. Treating nonprofit employees unfairly, however, is certainly not a solution.

Millennials—who have become the largest share of the U.S. workforce—are significantly more pro-labor than the preceding generations. This has given hope to unions, which have struggled in recent decades due to a number of factors ranging from deindustrialization to union-busting laws around the nation. The events in Chicago may point toward more labor militancy among nonprofit workers.

Pro-union sentiment, however, is far from universal. An informal poll conducted by Key Elements Group LLC of 71 industry professionals of all ages found that 68% of respondents did not want to join a union dedicated to nonprofit workers.

As millennials’ share of the workforce grows and Generation Z begins their careers, the barometer may shift in the opposite direction. Nonprofit leadership needs to prepare for this possibility. What happened in Chicago could happen with greater frequency, especially if organizations fail to adapt to the expectations of rising generations.

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