Old/new reflections on NGO staff unions

Over a decade ago, I was active in organizing staff unions at social movement organizations and non-profits.

A friend recently asked me for some advice on the topic. To be honest, it’s not something I have given a lot of thought to in recent years.

In an effort to jog my memory, I tried to dredge up an old article I wrote for the National Organizers Alliance. I didn’t have the paper file, and it wasn’t online. Until… I went to the WayBack Machine.

I think the article – “My Job is to Save the Environment, Not Save My Job” is a pretty good distillation of what I knew and how I thought about those things at the time.

I would make a few addendums, with the benefit of hindsight and the skepticism of the intervening years.

First, even if you are lucky enough to get a union recognized, it is hard keeping the momentum going. Staff turnover leads to loss of bargaining unit knowledge, and the local or national union staff aren’t well equipped to keep the specific spirit of the organizing drive alive as the original organizers move on. (Not really their job, anyway.) Also, in small orgs, talented staff get promoted, until they are (actually or might as well be) management.

Second, for social movement organizations, there is a fear that unionization leads to (over)professionalization. That’s a legitimate worry, but once you have hired staff, the horse has already left the barn. At that point, it is not worth keeping up the pretense of non-professionalization on the backs of your lowest paid, least empowered staff. Very dated, but my thinking on this is informed by a great compendium on the life cycle of social movements by Aldon D. Morris and Carol McClurg Mueller.

Third, while a union can help improve a workplace if there is enough staff motivation, it cannot alone change a fundamentally broken workplace culture with high levels of institutionalized mistrust. In that environment (and there are many many examples), a very sophisticated union campaign coupled with extensive management retraining may be called for. I like this book by Daniel Goleman et al for how to think about the leadership side of that equation. In these settings, as Albert Hirschman reminded us long ago, staff may need to consider other options.

Fourth, I probably did not emphasize wage concerns enough in the “My Job is to Save the Environment” piece. It was easy for me as an idealistic twenty-something with not a lot of financial needs to downplay the importance of wages. As an older person with a mortgage, I feel differently. Moreover, if mostly white non-profits are going to increase their race and class diversity, having not only liveable but competitive wages is a must. Some of this “non-wage” framing was also driven by the audience – the very low resourced organizations that made up NOA at the time.

Lastly, I am ashamed of how little we got done despite years of work. We had a lot of good ideas of where we were going to take the organizing drive. I blame this in part on marrying my co-organizer, which was great but a bit demobilizing in the best possible way. Also, the first thing I singled out above: I got promoted to where I had too much responsibility to also spend time improving workplaces. Nonetheless, I still feel it is very soul nourishing to try to change your own life and workplace for the better (rather than focus only on the welfare of others, your clients, constituents, target group, etc.). It also improves your own organizing chops!

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