There's been a resurgence in interest in organizing labor of late, which is entirely welcome to me, to most oppressed people, and to most of the progressive sector (which, for our purposes today, I'll define as not just nonprofits and campaigns that are explicitly progressive in their causes/values, as well as for-profit companies and social enterprises that operate within a progressive space and in progressive ways, which would include much of the tech/startup sector, center-left and left consulting firms, and many others as well).
But as some workers seek to gain power, we see the same tactics of resistance used by leadership in organizations in the progressive sector as we do in any other.
Most progressives and leftists are agreed: unions are good for workers and generally good for oppressed people. There are certainly problems within unions, as there are in any kind of organization that wields power. But broadly, the progressive talking point is that Unions Are Good.
So why is so little of the progressive space unionized?
I'm no expert (believe you me), but I have some ideas. I think in the end, it really comes down to two things: white collar privilege, and a subsequent misunderstanding of what unions are really for.
White Collar Privilege
Ultimately, most of the people who work in the kinds of organizations I'm talking about are middle class or better. Not all, certainly, especially in campaigns and organizing (which are only debatably white-collar at some levels/in some organizations), but most. It's very easy to look at, say, a bunch of service industry workers and tell them to unionize. They so patently lack power, often live in poverty, and often lack access to basic healthcare or retirement benefits. What do they have to lose, when they have so much to gain? We absolutely and of course support unionization drives among the lower classes!
But this isn't the situation for a lot of other white-collar workers. Sure, making $35k with health benefits isn't living large, and in cities like DC and NYC is still not necessarily high enough to live on your own, or save substantially for retirement, or be able to weather big emergencies in your life. But, assuming at least 10 days a year of holidays (there are 10 federal holidays), sick days, and/or vacation days, that's still more than $17 an hour.
In other words, it's not low enough that people are willing to take on great risk to change it, especially if they don't have a lot of other options that would preserve this small level of comfort they've attained if they should lose this job. And once you get even higher than that, workers can't really see how they personally would benefit from unionizing at all. After all, if you're making $50k a year with benefits, you're doing fine in most places around the country, in most circumstances. You're not rich, but you're able to weather the storms, and have a certain psychological security. To many folks in that situation, unionization feels risky ("my pay and benefits are fine, why would I risk sticking my middle finger in my employer's face for no reason?") at a gut level, but there's not much pay-off to offset that risk.
Misunderstanding what unions are for
Perhaps even more of a factor than the above (though also a product of white-collar privilege) is the idea that if your company treats you reasonably well, there's no reason to organize.
Unions are for protecting workers from exploitation by bad companies, right? Unionization is the last straw, the last avenue of recourse, for the most oppressed in our labor force, right?
A union is an organization created to balance the power disparity inherent in the employment relationship. Creating a union is an assertion that the workers, the people providing the labor that creates impact and profits, want to keep and retain a seat at the table when decisions are being made that impact the business, regardless of what happens in the future.
The thing is, your company is not your friend. It exists for a specific reason (in nonprofits, that is to fulfill its mission; in other companies, that reason is explicitly to create profit for owners). Many progressive firms have embraced the idea that treating people well, building diverse and inclusive teams, and paying market salaries help them do those things (though, again, in a for-profit company, those things are being done because someone made a business that they would increase profits, not because they have any charter to "do the right thing" or put people over profits), because it facilitates a more engaged and creative workforce, and occasionally generates good publicity.
Your company isn't doing you a solid by paying you well. They've read the writing on the wall and are acting in the business' best interests. And if the winds change and money is tight, you can bet your bottom dollar that they will continue to look after the best interests of the organization, not you.
So what we've ended up with is a situation where executives and leadership feel totally comfortable making ruthless decisions that benefit themselves and their organization and owners, while employees feel bad about being mean to a company that's doing so many nice things for them (and, in nonprofits, compounded with institutional guilt about impact on the mission). And then, if/when that company stops doing nice things and starts being mean because it needs to maintain growth or be more profitable or pivot to video or raise its stock price or whatever, it's too late. They lose little, at that point, by engaging in anti-union tactics and any gains an eventual union would make are done in a setting of hostility and economic uncertainty, rather than in the setting of friendliness and prosperity that it could have been years before.
When your company is at its most prosperous is when you should unionize! That's when you lock in the benefits that will really matter when things go south, like severance for people who are laid off, higher wages, and annual increases in wage. When those benefits are negotiated and set in a contract, the company then has actual legal obligations to provide them and to plan to continue to provide them, both when times are good and when times are bad. It doesn't matter how good your organization's current severance policies are; they can stop offering them whenever they want, and again, those are the type of benefits that get chopped when things get rough.
Pro-union progressives at non-union organizations and companies, especially those with friendly relationships with management, and especially those whose situation allows for them to take some risks, should consider starting to organize today. The benefits are huge:
- Union members tend to make more money, have better benefits, and have safer workplaces than equivalent non-members in their sector.
- Having a set of protections laid out in a contract ensures that the organization is incorporating those benefits into their ongoing financial planning, instead of regarding them as fat it can trim when it needs to.
- Unions spread! Seeing people similar to us unionize helps us see the possibility of unions ourselves, and inspires us to take action. How can we tell people with less power than ourselves, who are in worse situations than ourselves, that they should unionize with a straight face if we are unwilling to take those risks ourselves?
- More union shops means stronger unions, which not only helps more people unionize, it makes all our unions more powerful and better able to counterbalance the power our organizations have.
It's OK to genuinely like the company you work for, your leadership, and/or your bosses. That's OK! I fully believe that work can be personally fulfilling and/or fun to do. It's wonderful to come together with other people and build something, create something, do something big. And unionizing doesn't have to be a hostile process; it just that it usually is, because the organization wants to retain its power, and most people don't become VPs, CEOs, Presidents, or Directors by giving up power and paying people more than they have to. Most institutions have a built-in anti-union bias, and most leaders don't hesitate to act aggrieved by unionization efforts.
When you're unionizing, executives are real people who care about you and are hurt that you would repay their kindness by slapping them in the face like this. When they're laying you off, it's just business. Not to mention that you can have the best boss in the world today, only to find they've been replaced by someone terrible tomorrow. Things being good right now is a reason to organize, not a reason not to, because none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.
Yes, unionizing can be scary. It also can be a lot of work, which is a huge factor for folks that already have to work overtime to make their missions a reality. Unions aren't perfect, and have many of the same issues that other big, powerful, and legacy organizations do. But if you currently work for a non-unionized organization, or run one, I urge you to consider why that is, what the real risks are, and whether you truly believe that unions are an important tool for preserving the rights of workers, dismantling white supremacy, ending the wage gap and creating prosperity for all. If so, the problems within unions can be overcome, but only if our unions are robust, powerful, and full of people of all stripes that actually want to solve those problems.