Nonprofit Workers Shouldn’t Be Turned Away Because Unions Are at “Capacity”

It’s time for parent unions to think creatively about new organizing.

Myriam Sabbaghi

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This summer, my coworkers and I successfully unionized our Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization — the National Iranian American Council. We are proud to be a part of this historic moment when workers in nonprofits across the United States are unionizing to improve their workplaces and have a seat at the table. 

When it came to organizing my co-workers, and sending our letter for recognition to management, things came easy. Surprisingly, the hardest part of the process was finding a parent union. On top of doing my full-time job, in the first four months of 2022, I contacted 10 different potential parent unions. All gave a version of the same response: they had no capacity to accept our unit of five nonprofit workers. Some advised me to contact them next year when they may have more capacity, but not all the parent unions offered to provide resources or connect us to other unions. 

Across the country, there are signs of a broader untapped potential of nonprofit unionizing being held back by lack of capacity. Only 10.3 percent of American workers belong to a union. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2019, just 8 percent of the country’s roughly 15 million nonprofit workers were union members, compared to 33 percent of federal, state and local government employees. In 2018, the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), an organization specifically designed to unionize nonprofit workers, claimed membership at around 300 employees from 12 organizations. Today, NPEU has almost 1500 workers at about 50 organizations. While welcome, this increase is a signal that much more work needs to be done. 

So why are many parent unions at capacity and therefore unable to take on units sometimes as small as five nonprofit workers? Is it because they lack resources and have not figured out how to handle the influx of requests that have exploded so quickly over the last few years? Or have they not yet formulated a vision for new forms of organizing? In this context, what does capacity” mean?

The definition of capacity is being successfully able to organize a unit,” says Bruce Jett, Organizing Director of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild (WBNG). One challenge for parent unions is not to overpromise and under-deliver. Whether it is a unit of five people or 200 people, parent unions need to teach new members how to navigate the recognition and bargaining process. Parent unions must underscore how effective they can be in serving members after the recognition process,” says Jett. Organizers must train members how to be stewards, debrief with them, and monitor all steps of the process to the point where units function independently, with the help of the parent union. 

When assessing capacity, parent unions also look at their financial situation. These unions are generally required to handle contract negotiations for their members, and such negotiations can often be expensive, involving lawyers and business managers. Negotiations can also take longer for workplaces that are bargaining for the first time, or when management drags their feet, as in the case of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Usually, it takes longer to win a first contract than it does to win union recognition. 

As a former labor organizer from Chicago, the unionization process was not new to me. Although I was tenacious in finding the right parent union, I kept telling myself, It should not be this hard.” In fact, I felt exhausted. What about the other nonprofit workers who are new to the labor movement?

Those nonprofit workers would likely either continue searching, or just give up. Either way, they would be working longer in exploitative conditions where they are overworked and underpaid until a union agrees to take them on. Alternatively, they could go the independent route (like Pennsylvania Workers United first did), write petitions to management, or march on the boss. But these are risky and time-consuming endeavors, especially if workers are under at-will employment (which about three-quarters of U.S. workers currently are).

The fact is that many workers are at capacity as well. In assessing whether to take on a new unit, parent unions should also consider what capacity means to workers. We need to keep workers at the center of the labor movement.

With help from the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), we found a local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) that had the capacity to take us on. Thankfully, we easily won recognition from management. Having a parent union empowered me and my coworkers to envision and bargain for an equitable contract, bringing us all closer to our organization’s pro-diplomacy mission. 

Soon after we affiliated with IBEW, our local business managers said that four nonprofits in the D.C. area also wanted to affiliate. Of course, this phenomenon is not new. For example, when the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Calif. affiliated with Communications Workers of America (CWA) 9415, 10 other nonprofits in the Bay Area also unionized and affiliated with CWA. 

Other nonprofit workers are not so lucky: not only may they have trouble finding a parent union, they might also face more challenges in the mission to unionize, from the first organizing conversation to management refusing to recognize them. Hence, parent unions rejecting units due to capacity makes the entire process more difficult for workers. As Jillian Grant, a volunteer organizer at EWOC, asks: What conversations are parent unions having about new organizing? Are they conceiving new organizing as a critical part of the labor movement today?” 

From my standpoint, I realized there was almost no cross-union connection to help solve the problem of capacity. Hayley Brown, president of the NPEU, appears to agree that not enough is currently being done on the coordination front. Conversations have started about more coordination between parent unions, but not to the extent we want to see,” Brown says. The more nonprofits unionize, the better it will be for nonprofit workers in general. The enthusiasm has grown in such a short period of time, and we do not want it to go to waste. We need a more organized infrastructure for nonprofit workers to find a union home.”

As Grant and Brown suggest, cross-union connections can empower workers, allowing them to embrace new organizing while building stronger solidarity between parent unions. A centralized support system for workers could include tools such as an interactive map of all unions in their area, or even unions that have capacity. Parent unions can also offer to train one of the unit’s leaders on organizing basics before eventually taking them on. In essence, capacity and cross-union connections impact each other at all levels.

A parent union may understandably be at capacity when rejecting a unit. But from a worker’s perspective, a parent union telling them that it’s at capacity can come off as a signal that their unit is not significant enough. Turning away workers without providing them with resources or creating a support system is unacceptable not only to the workers who want to organize but to the broader U.S. labor movement that has been battered over the last 40 years.

We cannot afford to lose those workers. Parent unions should have serious conversations internally and externally about new organizing — and how to engage with it creatively. 

Myriam Sabbaghi is an organizer and poet based in Washington, D.C. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Washington, Seattle, and her graduate studies at the University of Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @thewooldyer.

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