Labor Unions And Nonprofits The Shifting Landscape
Talent Published Date, 2023

Labor Unions And Nonprofits: The Shifting Landscape

Created By: Shaby T. Rosales
August 29, 2023

The ongoing strike of the Writer’s Guild of America has captured the attention of audiences beyond Hollywood. Since Screen Actors Guild members joined writers on the picket lines, news and social media feeds are full of celebrities proclaiming solidarity against a common enemy – studio executives.

Should nonprofit executives worry that they’re next? Probably not, but this is a good time to examine attitudes toward organized labor and preparedness for union activity.

The ultimate responsibility of nonprofit leaders is to fulfill their organization’s mission, and this requires a committed staff. Salary, benefits, and dignified treatment help to keep nonprofit workers engaged and productive. All nonprofit executives who aspire to excel in the business of philanthropy should have an understanding of the history of labor unions and the forces at play in today’s world.

Here are some points to consider:

  • Unions can be disruptive. If not properly handled, labor issues can spiral out of control, with dire ramifications for staff relations and morale. (Read about employees at a nonprofit healthcare organization in New Mexico who are pursuing unionization.) A strong human resources department is an executive’s greatest resource, and it’s always a good idea to have access to a general counsel with labor experience. Your board should include a lawyer, ideally with a connection to firms with expertise in labor-management relations.
  • Organizing is a legally-protected right. American workers have the right to form unions and to engage in activities like discussing union meetings with coworkers (read more). That doesn’t mean you have to like it, but it’s in your interest to be fully informed and to proceed with caution if you have any plans to avoid a labor union arising in your ranks.
  • Unions aren’t the force they once were in American society. Membership has been on a long decline, thanks to factors like deindustrialization and anti-union sentiment. Organizing and sustaining unions is especially uphill in so-called “right to work” states (where workers cannot be forced to join or pay dues; read more). 
  • Don’t count unions out altogether. Despite long-standing trends, a new generation of activists has become increasingly vocal. These younger activists are pushing back against what they perceive as overly demanding working conditions and emphasizing connections between the labor movement and increasingly popular movements for racial and climate justice.
  • Most of the action is still happening in the corporate world. Until the screenwriters went on strike, Amazon and Starbucks were the biggest stories in organized labor. For the most part, the movement is focused on corporate employees, simply because they take up most of the workforce. And as a recent Philanthropy News Digest story pointed out, “Nonprofits face issues that don’t necessarily impact large corporations, such as a culture of money scarcity, as many organizations rely on individual donations and institutional grants, and funds often are earmarked for a specific program, but not for the administrative costs of running it.” Small nonprofits often fly under the radar of the major unions.
  • Nonprofits are not immune. Historically, the nonprofit sector has not been especially fertile ground for the labor movement, perhaps because of what’s noted above regarding expectations around resource constraints. However, this philosophy may be outdated. A recent AP story about the growing number of nonprofits that are unionizing points out that “younger, well-educated, and altruistic” workers have “a perfect blend of characteristics that tip people toward interest in unions.” Furthermore, mega-donor investments in select nonprofits are raising sensitive questions about what workers are entitled to (see “They Want to Change the World. They Would Also Like a Raise.”). Performing arts nonprofits have a history with unions, and institutions of higher education are increasingly unionized. A recent Inside Higher Ed piece (written by a labor lawyer) reports that about 60% of the nearly 225,000 employees who engaged in work stoppages last year were educators, researchers, and other academic professionals.

The ongoing Writer’s Guild of America strike and its implications for labor unions hold pertinent lessons for the nonprofit sector. While immediate unionization might not be imminent, comprehending historical and modern labor trends remains pivotal for nonprofit leaders to ensure a committed workforce. By nurturing discourse, adjusting HR approaches, and addressing employee needs and aspirations, nonprofits can adeptly navigate the shifting labor dynamics situated at the crossroads of social justice and worker advocacy.

Orr Group has a deep bench of human resources specialists with expertise in talent and staffing. We look forward to partnering with leaders to help them accomplish their missions in partnership with their teams. Get in touch to learn more.

Shaby Rosales Headshot

Shaby Rosales is a Partner and Chief Experience Officer at Orr Group. Shaby drives and manages the firm’s client experience function to ensure exceptional delivery of our services. In addition, Shaby brings nearly 20 years of progressive HR experience to provide guidance and leadership to Orr Group’s team.

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