IN THE TRENCHES
By Jennifer C. Berkshire
When Joe Quirk made the decision to come out publicly in support of a labor-union organizing drive at his charity, he knew he was taking a risk. After all, the unionization effort under way at the Boston antipoverty group Action for Boston Community Development had created a bitter rift between union supporters and opponents, turning managers against their employees and co-workers against one another.
But when Mr. Quirk pinned on a pro-union button and showed up for his job as an office-services assistant at the charity's copy shop, he wasn't prepared for his boss's reaction. "Before long," he recalls, "my boss wouldn't speak to me. Not hello, not goodbye."
Soon after a majority of the group's employees voted against forming a union in 1997, Mr. Quirk himself said goodbye -- to the administrative position he had held for two years. "By the time it was over, my anxiety level had been so high for so long, I just felt totally isolated," he says. "I chose to leave."
In recent years, as the number of Americans who are employed in the nonprofit field has soared, union organizing efforts at charities like Action for Boston Community Development have become increasingly commonplace. The trend has taken hold even as overall union membership has stagnated: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that in 2001, 13.5 percent of American workers belonged to unions, down from 16 percent 10 years ago. What's more, unlike the for-profit world, where anti-union sentiment runs strong, employees of nonprofit groups, often steeped in the discourses of rights and justice, are seen as more likely to be pro-union.
"A significant share of employees who work for nonprofit organizations go into that work because they want to improve their communities," says Stephanie Luce, a professor of labor studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "They learn that unions play an important role in improving the wages and working conditions of their constituents, and before long, the nonprofit employees have begun to think that unionization might not be such a bad thing in their own workplaces."
Meanwhile, major unions, including the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, view organizing at nonprofit groups as key, not just to their expansion but also to their very survival. The roots of their current perspective, according to Ms. Luce, go back to the mid-1980s, when waves of privatization swept through states and cities. Governments began turning jobs once done by unionized employees over to nonprofit workers, causing unionized companies and nonprofit groups to compete routinely for government contracts. And while the trend toward privatizing jobs, including janitorial services and home health care, slowed in the 1990s, the trend is likely to pick up again amid today's tight budgets, says Ms. Luce. "Whether or not contracting out public work results in savings isn't clear," she says. "But in the current budget crisis, we're likely to see increased pressure on cities and states to privatize public jobs."A Bitter Divide
While unions may have their own strategic reasons for stepping up organizing efforts at charities, and many nonprofit employees may be amenable to forming unions, the marriage between the two entities has proved to be far from harmonious. Recent years have seen high-profile union drives across the country at museums in Chicago, at hospitals and health-care organizations in Boston, and at social-services groups in San Francisco. The issues vary from charity to charity, but the outcome has been disturbingly similar: an atmosphere of rancor that literally divides nonprofit organizations in two.
It's a story that's all too familiar to Jeanne Peters, a consultant at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, in San Francisco, which advises charities on management issues. When unions in the Bay Area started an intensive effort to organize local nonprofit organizations in 1996, it focused on the large social-services group where Ms. Peters worked as a middle manager. "I saw the activity, I had contact with the organizers, and I also had contact with management," she says. In the case of her charity, management opted to fight the organizing effort. "They were caught off guard initially," she says, "and then made the decision to come at it very aggressively."
The bitter divisions that resulted were painful, Ms. Peters acknowledges, but they also piqued her interest as a researcher. Two years later, she worked on the Aspen Institute study "A House Divided: How Nonprofits Experience Union Drives." Drawing on interviews with more than 40 nonprofit executives, trustees, and staff members in San Francisco and New York, the report, written with Jan Masaoka and Stephen Richardson, provides a compelling look at how individuals react to unionization drives at nonprofit groups.
"The power of a union drive to divide an organization against itself is extraordinarily strong and profound," concludes the report. The authors determined that the aggressive rhetoric of unionization -- honed on factory floors in the 1930s -- can prove particularly divisive in the nonprofit arena, where both employees and managers often feel a special connection to the mission of their organizations. The mismanagement that sometimes plagues charities, concludes Ms. Peters, makes the mix even more explosive. "People told very personal stories about how they were wronged in the workplace and treated badly by their bosses," she says. "There's also a sense of expectation. Nonprofit employees feel that this shouldn't be true in the nonprofit world. Maybe at Starbucks, but not at a human-services agency that's about justice."Healing the Rift
When Sandra Kay-Weaver became vice president of human resources at Chicago Children's Museum in 2000, it was not an ideal time to begin working there: The museum had just gone through a failed unionization drive with the Service Employees International Union. Ms. Kay-Weaver likens the work climate in those first days to a family feud. "You had employees who worked side by side who were extremely passionate about different viewpoints," she says. "There was a lot of tension, and it was very tough."
More than a year and a half later, notes Ms. Kay-Weaver, the atmosphere at work has changed completely. "All of the healing has taken place," she says. Key to repairing the rift, she says, was rebuilding trust: "That meant a lot of talking and sharing. People needed time to grieve." The museum also revamped its policies to give employees a greater role in decision making. For example, cross-department teams of employees now help to select the museum's exhibits.
Ms. Kay-Weaver says she doesn't believe that unions and cultural institutions make a good fit. Like many human-resource professionals, she regards unions as third parties that complicate the relationship between manager and employee. " I wouldn't know what benefit a union could provide to our employees," she says.
But union organizer Peter Miller of the Illinois Education Association, a teachers union, argues that unions have a long history of representing workers in educational and cultural institutions. "Unions are the best way to address workplace problems like salary inequities, long work hours for some but not for others, or favoritism, for example," he says. "If a human-resources manager believes in employee participation, why not support a committee with legal standing to negotiate over wages, hours, and other working conditions? That's all a union is."Powerful Partnerships
Lately, some unions and charities have been joining forces not only to try to organize nonprofit workers, but also to defend social services in tough budgetary times. When unions and charities work together, argues Rand Wilson, a spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 285 in Boston, they can be more powerful than as individual advocates. "So many nonprofits are dependent on public financing, and a union can be a powerful voice for encouraging public appropriations," he says.
In Boston, where Local 285 represents members who work in hospitals and nursing homes, the union teamed up in 1999 with a nonprofit hospital in Quincy, Mass., that was on the verge of bankruptcy. "The union was able to work with the mayor, the Legislature, and hospital administrators to make sure that emergency appropriations were made," says Mr. Wilson. Today, the hospital not only remains open, but it also has since affiliated with a large Boston hospital, giving it added financial and clinical support.
San Francisco has also been the site of a creative dialogue between unions and major human-services organizations. The Human Services Network, a coalition of 90 organizations that works to influence public policy, defends the safety net provided by nonprofit groups. "The coalition effort reflects the reality that while nonprofits are a major presence in the Bay Area, they have not had much political influence," says Bruce Fisher, head of the network.
As a result of its new organizing, Human Services Network has been recognized by local unions as a potential ally on some issues. Earlier this year, it held a rally of some 1,500 people in front of San Francisco City Hall to urge the city not to cut nonprofit services. For the first time, the network's cause garnered union support. "Now we're starting to have some influence because we're organized," says Mr. Fisher, who also serves as executive director of Huckleberry Youth Programs, a charity whose employees are members of Service Employees International Union Local 790.
Nonprofit groups in San Francisco have also come to the aid of unions: Many charity leaders supported efforts by several local unions to persuade the city to levy a tax on real-estate transactions in order to help replenish San Francisco's deficit-plagued budget. The measure was voted down in this month's election.
While the collaboration between unions and charities may result in a stronger voice for nonprofit groups in the human-services arena, it's not without complications, says Mr. Fisher. Charities in San Francisco, he notes, have their own relationships with the city, and many nonprofit leaders are committed to the view that nonprofit groups can provide better services than can municipal governments and for-profit corporations. "We support the union's position to oppose privatization of services to the for-profit sector, but we need to win union support for government contracting with community-based nonprofits for health and social services," Mr. Fisher says.
The relationship between unions and charities in the Bay Area is likely to be snarled further, he says, if unions step up their efforts to organize nonprofit workers. "Unions have come to us because their long-term growth is in the nonprofit sector," he says. "It's in their self-interest." Within that field, though, he concludes, "Those of us who have unions and have learned to live with them are still in the minority."
For that to change, says Mr. Fisher, both sides will have to display maturity and flexibility. "Nonprofit leaders need to engage in a dialogue, while unions need to be mature, enlightened, and knowledgeable," he says. "They can't come in with the attitude, 'You're all screwing the workers.'"Moving On
Despite the unpleasant end to his tenure at Action for Boston Community Development, Mr. Quirk has no regrets about his decision to support the charity's union drive. It may have taken a lot of nerve for him to speak at pro-union rallies and wear a union button on the job, but the choice to organize was made instinctively. "It was an ethical imperative," he says. "I couldn't just sit back and do nothing and let other employees fight to change their working conditions."
After leaving Action for Boston, Mr. Quirk went on to work for a Boston nonprofit group that provides at-home care services to low-income elderly people. He is now a contracts manager, a career boost that he attributes in part to his days as a union-supporting worker.
"Being an employee organizer during a union drive taught me a lot about how to manage," he says. "The experience at ABCD helped me formulate a standard of fairness and an appreciation for the concerns of staff members that I've tried to apply as a manager. I'm also more likely to speak out when I see that management is acting against the interest of employees. I wish that there had been a manager who'd spoken out on my behalf back then."
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