Will Nonprofit Employees Unionize?
A new year is a new opportunity for nonprofits to think and act anew. Take, for instance, attempts by the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU) and the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) to unionize all nonprofits. Now is the time for everyone to rethink this campaign because unionization is not a guarantee of unity or a guard against uncertainty.
As a supporter of nonprofits and a defender of unions — and as a retired union member, I applaud the good these institutions do; but I abhor — and have a duty to prevent — acts that would group the smallest and poorest nonprofits with the largest and richest nonprofits.
The NPEU and OPEIU know this is a war most nonprofits cannot win and must not fight. The legal costs alone would be huge while the larger costs — from the loss of goods to the destruction of goodness itself — would be incalculable. The communities would suffer while citizens suffer in silence.
The absence of compromise undermines this cause while the absence of certain facts compromises the legitimacy of this cause. Put another way, what protesters believe unions should do is different from what unions can do.
Unions can negotiate wages or strike for want of better wages, but members armed with poster boards cannot strong-arm their way into a single boardroom. The law does not compel board members to seat union members, for there are no set-asides for labor at the highest levels of employment. That protesters believe otherwise is no surprise.
About wages, benefits and working conditions, the law is clear: Negotiations are mandatory. Everything else is irrelevant since unions have limited and enumerated powers. The work of forming a union is also hard and uncompensated work.
The organizer may not disclose this fact, and the romantic may not want to know this fact, but it takes more than a virtual vote to create an actual union. Likes do not translate into laws or bylaws because social media is not a substitute for mediation. Clicks do not, in other words, count. What does count is that which the romantic fails to take into account: the amount of time (60 to 80 hours per month) necessary to sustain a union.
The romantic may insist that every vote counts, regardless of volition. But a worker whose vote is obligatory rather than voluntary is a worker without the right to vote. If a worker is one of 20 employees and the only one whose position is unknown, she loses in one of two ways. Either she votes to avoid reprisals or her vote elicits reprisals because what is private in theory is not secret in practice. The sacredness of the secret ballot is, in this scenario, a contrivance. That fear corrupts this process is also no secret.
If cynics treat idealists as marks, the cost will be social insolvency. If knaves convince naïfs to organize, the cost will be total: nothing for the least among us, and everything for those with nothing to lose. It will subsume people and nonprofits for a cause without end, ending years of work and decades of good for a single good — intimidation.
Nonprofits have a right to be firm in the defense of rights. They have no right to surrender, for they will have no rights if they surrender. Rightness is on their side, as now is the time for all nonprofits to choose sides.
Michael D. Shaw is a UCLA- and MIT-trained biochemist. A consultant to nonprofits, he resides in Virginia.