“The reason we all work at nonprofits is because we support the mission of the nonprofits,” says Kayla Blado, who works at the Economic Policy Institute. It makes sense. Like many fields that involve doing something good for the world, nonprofit work tends to come with low pay and long hours. But now, more than ever before, it comes with something else: a union drive. The nonprofit union wave is rising right along with the intensity of the crises that nonprofits are dealing with in our bad, bad world.
Over the past two years, there has been a legitimate boom in nonprofit union campaigns. All of those that have gone public have been successful. Alongside the recent rise in unionization at media outlets, museums and cultural institutions, nonprofit workers are part of an unprecedented uprising of labor organizing in white collar professions.
At the center of it all is the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), where Kayla Blado serves as president. The NPEU has been around since 1998, when EPI unionized, but two years ago it began aggressively attracting new nonprofits. Now — seemingly all of a sudden — it represents 27 different workplaces, including influential D.C. institutions like the Center for American Progress, Open Markets Institute and J Street. Though affiliated with the national union IFPTE, the NPEU is run as a volunteer operation (with a single quarter-time paid organizer), with an executive board made up of members and an organizing strategy driven by word of mouth in the tight-knit D.C. nonprofit world. The numbers tell the story of how dramatic and recent the surge in organizing has been: According to Blado, the NPEU has 250 dues-paying members, another 400 bargaining contracts now, and more than a thousand organizing at shops that are not public yet.
So far, the NPEU has won voluntary recognition in every single union campaign it has organized — a remarkable record that reflects skillful use of the fact that the management of most progressive nonprofits don’t want to be seen as anti-union (even if they wish that the union didn’t exist). The fact that in multiple recent campaigns management has taken weeks to voluntarily recognize the union hints at the grudging nature of their acceptance of the new, organized reality of their work force.
During a two-week period in the month of April, as the coronavirus crisis raged, the economy buckled, and office workers fled to their homes, the NPEU announced seven successful union drives, boosting their number of shops by a full third. That record is likely unmatched anywhere in the union world. Blado says that the organizing at all of them had begun before the crisis, but was accelerated by the urgency of the moment. It doesn’t hurt that all of those workers now have a vehicle to participate in the conversation about when it is safe to reopen their offices. “This is exactly why people have chosen to have a union,” Blado says, “because of situations like this where management could [otherwise] make a unilateral decision.”
At the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, staffers began discussing unionizing last fall. After a couple of months shopping around for various unions, they settled on NPEU. “We felt really connected to NPEU because they’re mission driven, and we’re similarly a very mission driven organization,” says Morgan Conley, a national election protection coordinator there. Employees saw their union drive, which management announced an “intent” to recognize in April, as perfectly aligned with the group’s civil rights purpose. “We wanted to make sure we were making the right decision for the Lawyers Committee,” she says. “We felt this would really ensure the success and viability of the organization.”
At progressive nonprofits, the decision of how intense and public to make any labor battle is a tricky one. Unlike at regular companies, many of the employees in the union may feel torn between protecting the organization’s reputation, which is valuable for serving a purpose they believe in, and protecting their own labor rights. The NPEU’s surge in organizing no doubt benefits from the increased militancy of a younger generation of workers — not just in nonprofits, but everywhere — who are already living through the second economic crisis of their careers. “Many non-profits expect that mission-driven work will keep workers, especially younger workers, satisfied with lower pay,” says Alyson Samach, a staffer at the liberal pro-Israel nonprofit J Street, which recognized its new union last week after a month of negotiations. “Our millennial staff have already struggled to launch careers through one recession, and our Gen‑Z staff are now thrust into financial instability by another. As we are all faced with a dire economic outlook, we are banding together to ensure more protections for our staff.”
That commitment to “mission” is ubiquitous as a motivation to organize. Jessie Hahn and Trudy Rebert are attorneys at the National Immigration Law Center, which works to advance the rights of low-income immigrants in America. When staffers began talking to one another about organizing many months ago, they realized there was a shared desire for transparency and some system for joint decision making at work. A union seemed like a natural fit. “We are a mission driven organization,” Hahn says. “People come to work here because they align with those values. We saw starting a union as an important way to model those values.” Rebert echoes this, noting that she and other attorneys came to the organization specifically because they want to live out those values, “not because we want to be paid the big bucks.” Despite this, the NILC Union has now been negotiating for recognition from management for more than a month. The head of NILC, Marielena Hincapié, was recently announced as a member of the Biden-Sanders immigration task force, which will be closely scrutinized for progressive bona fides.
Rather quietly, and without a paid staff, the NPEU has taken serious strides toward unionizing an industry with a good deal of inherent political power and a high public profile. Many left-leaning media outlets and allegedly liberal cultural institutions have already been through full-scale battles against their own employees who painted them as hypocritical for fighting against unionization. The NPEU has not had to do that yet, but history tells us that that day will come. (In fact, an ongoing fight for union recognition at the ACLU in California may turn into such a battle.) Everyone at the union — whose members include many lawyers, researchers, and P.R. professionals that amount to the makings of a volunteer army — indicates they aren’t scared of the fight, though they are not seeking one.
In a big picture sense, the future of the labor movement needs blue collars and white collars, for-profit and nonprofit. Each staff union campaign that NPEU wins is one step towards a world in which progressive activist organizations will be able to say that they put their money where their mouths are. “Just because you have an advanced degree doesn’t make you immune from discrimination at work, or getting fired without having just cause,” Blado says. “I think we’re creating the labor movement that we want to see.”
Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.