Over his six years at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Esteban Gil watched colleague after colleague leave. Part of it was the nature of the work: helping people in immigrant detention and in prison. It is high-stakes, high-stress work. But there was also something deeply wrong with the way the group operated and the very low pay, he says.
“People burn out and they tire out, and then they leave,” says Gil, a program associate in the group’s criminal-justice-reform division. They didn’t have autonomy in their jobs, he says, and didn’t feel respected. Some folks left for more money, and others left to get away. “We had a problem with mismanagement and toxicity.”
A union, Gil thought, could be the answer, so he and his co-workers decided to form one.
Money was a key issue for staff at the nonprofit, which monitors hate groups and brings lawsuits over civil-rights, immigration, and criminal-justice issues. Jackie Hurst, who works as a bilingual administrative assistant, says that her department, part of the immigrant-justice project, had been chronically understaffed. After taxes and other deductions, Hurst took home just $1,100 for two weeks of work. She earned so little that she lives 54 miles away from the group’s Decatur, Georgia, office, where housing is cheaper. “Our pay was not sustainable,” she says.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is far from alone. Nonprofit cultural institutions, advocacy groups, and social-service organizations have all had employees unionize. That includes big names like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and smaller ones like the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Even as the economy cools and fears of recession grow, both union organizers and consultants who advise nonprofit leaders on the issue say nonprofit staff are continuing to unionize at the same fast pace.
Roughly two dozen museums have unionized in the past three years, according to the American Alliance of Museums. The Nonprofit Professional Employees Union has grown from 300 workers at 12 organizations in 2018 to 1,500 workers at nearly 50 organizations today. Since 2019 the Nonprofit Employees United has unionized workers at 68 organizations. The NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America went from having five unions recognized in 2019 to 44 today.
The increase in nonprofit unions comes at a time when unions have been rising in popularity among all Americans. Approval of unions, at 71%, is at its highest since 1965, according to Gallup. While the number of nonprofits that are unionizing is increasing, they likely make up a small part of the overall work force. The government does not break out statistics for nonprofit unionization, but union members make up about 10% of the total workforce — about half of what it was in 1983, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nonprofit employees may be more predisposed to unionizing than other workers. They tend to be younger, well educated, and altruistic — a perfect blend of characteristics that tip people toward interest in unions, says David Zonderman, a history professor at North Carolina State University who teaches labor and nonprofit history.
Nonprofits come out of a tradition of charity and sacrifice, and most pay their employees less than private companies and government. As a result, many unionizing workers are looking for livable wages and opportunities to advance, all the more important as housing costs and inflation have shot up. Others see unions as a way to press for greater racial equity.
At museums and other nonprofits, the pandemic exposed a business model based on underpaying employees, says Laura Lott, CEO of the American Alliance of Museums. Younger workers are challenging the idea that work at prestigious institutions should come with substandard pay.
The arguments nonprofit leaders have long made to push back demands for better pay — budget and contract constraints, the importance of the mission, and the idea that raising wages would take desperately needed funds away from services — are not working as well as they once did, says Hil O’Connell, a national organizer at the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America.
That’s certainly been the case at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Arizona.
Yesenia Ramales, a senior legal assistant, says that no one got raises for two years. At the same time, caseloads were growing and everyone was doing more work. Every time she asked for a raise, she says, she was told the group was there for the community — aren’t you here for the community?
Ramales and her fellow employees were sick of that answer, so they formed a union.
“I just want to be compensated for the work I’m doing,” she says. “I just want them to acknowledge that prices are rising, bills are getting more expensive, and I can’t live off of the salary.”
Lillian Aponte, the group’s co-executive director, said she couldn’t comment on ongoing contract negotiations. She says the group has embraced unionization and that it’s an opportunity for “meaningful discussion.”
At the Southern Poverty Law Center, contract talks were long and acrimonious.
Management tried to be respectful, listen to workers, and take the high road, says Lecia Brooks, chief of staff and culture at the organization and management’s lead negotiator with the union. But, she says, the union treated management “like we were all the devil.” She says the union attacked negotiators personally and talked to the media about the substance of the negotiations. “We didn’t do any of that,” she says.
Gil, one of the union’s negotiators, doesn’t think unions should pull punches. “This is ultimately a conflict between two classes, the class that works and the employer class, and our interests are at odds,” he says. “We didn’t think anything was out of bounds.”
After 18 months of negotiations, both sides reached an agreement on a contract. It raises minimum pay from $15 to $20 an hour. Some workers saw their salaries jump from $38,000 a year to $60,000. Employees who have worked at the organization longer earn more money for each year of seniority they have. Hurst’s take-home salary jumped from $1,100 to around $1,400 per pay period.
A section of the agreement is devoted to racial justice, equity, and inclusion. The union is proud that the group is banned from using nondisclosure agreements, which are often used to silence employees who experience discrimination or harassment.
The attorney that represented the law center, Joyce Goldstein, is happy with the contract, which she says provides generous vacation and other benefits. But Brooks is disappointed that the process was so contentious. She thinks there’s a better way for staff and management to come to an agreement on how to run the workplace, especially if both sides have similar values as is often the case at nonprofits.
Some experts say that when management voluntarily recognizes a union, negotiation can be less contentions and that educating both sides about the unfamiliar contract negotiation process can also help.
Even Gil, for all his suspicion of management, would like to see a better process.
“If you hold yourself out to be a progressive nonprofit, then walk the walk,” Gil says. “Let’s talk about how we can share power and be a model for the kind of society we want to live in.”