Union Organizing at “Progressive” Companies Comes With Its Own Set of Challenges

The general manager at a member-owned, sustainable, organic food cooperative. The executive director of a reproductive healthcare center. A collective board at a soup kitchen. The socialist-themed owners of a plant-based meats company. The bosses of a punk-doughnut chain and a queer restaurant. What do they have in common, you ask? Often, the answer is union busting, holding captive audience meetings and violating workers’ rights.

Organizing against abusive and exploitive bosses at for-profit, politically “neutral” companies is always difficult — but organizing workers at nonprofit organizations and businesses with a “progressive” image comes with a unique set of challenges.

Nonprofit organizations such as Planned Parenthood seem to have very few similarities with companies like Starbucks. One provides essential health and reproductive services to diverse communities. The board of directors is often made up of leaders from the local community. The other is a major global corporation with billionaire CEOs and directors. Both organizations use their progressive personas as a cover for power imbalances and economic inequalities. They also exploit their workers. “hidden abode of production.”

“Nonprofits have a role to play in capitalism and present themselves as something different, as an alternative,” argues Kieran Knutson, the president of Communications Workers of America Union (CWA) Local 7250An experienced organizer. In part, the nonprofit sector was created in the 1970s to provide essential services in areas that had been abandoned by the state. As the state withdrew from service provision under neoliberal capitalism, nonprofits backed by wealthy funders and foundations filled in, using low-wage workers and the “volunteer society” to manage social conflict and mitigate the public’s demands for the state to provide them with resources. These nonprofits depend on the generosity of donors as well as a steady supply people who are willing to work for them, often without decent pay or a say at their workplaces. Directors on corporate boards are often more distant from the production, services and workplace conditions of their clients and employees than those on nonprofit boards. Corporate directors can be pressured because a strike or slowdown will affect the company’s bottom line and thus stock options, salaries, bonuses and compensation. Nonprofit directors may not have an economic incentive, and this can be a pressure point.

A progressive and inclusive image has helped attract a diverse customer base for both large corporations and small businesses. However, the veneer of inclusion and diversity often covers low wages without benefits, hyper-exploitation with long or irregular hours and a lack in power. People from marginalized groups, such as queer people or people of color, often choose to work in progressive companies, only to experience the same discrimination, abuse, and harassment that is found in many workplaces. Signage that states “all are welcome here,” is directed at customers and the public, not employees. Even though these workplaces may be more diverse, they are often less democratic and just than their politically neutral counterparts.

The problem with nonprofit corporations and businesses with a progressive image is that their ideals don’t apply to those who work there. These ideals often lack a power and class analysis. Challenge a “progressive” boss’s power and see how quickly they behave badly.

Progressive Bosses behaving badly

“This is not a democracy,” stated the general manager of a sustainable, organic, member-owned food co-op as they fired a pro-union worker. The worker had accepted the cashier position in part because they were able to wear a “they/them” pronoun button at work, an indication that their gender identity would be honored by customers and coworkers. And they were excited that in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, their managers distributed Black Lives Matter buttons for employees to wear, too. The co-op managers thought that the pronoun button and BLM buttons were a good step in the right direction. They also felt that efforts to form a union, and circulate petitions calling for hazard wages for frontline workers during a pandemic, were too far.

Patricia*, a member of the organizing committee at the co-op who I spoke to via Zoom in November 2021, was shocked by management’s response when the workers took their hazard pay petition public. Even with overwhelming support from coworkers and the community, the day after it was announced, “we walked into the breakroom, and ripped-up pieces of the petition were everywhere,” she said. “Then [a long-time employee and spouse of the finance director] wrote a really nasty letter that went out to the whole staff about how we were ungrateful, and we were lucky to have jobs and we should be happy with what we get.”

Similarly, the organizing efforts at a reproductive health center “all started with us doing a hazard pay petition,” that management “refused to acknowledge,” noted Josephine,* a clinic worker and union activist. Immediately after the petition was launched, the “CEO and CFO both said that they were going to be taking a 3 percent pay cut from their salary. Our CEO earns $220,000.00 per year. So, [the pay cut was]Not much. It’s about the same amount as our pay for three whole months.” Josephine and her coworkers presumed that this money was to be spent toward their demand for hazard pay, but “come to find out, after about a month, they reinstated their full salary,” she said. “So, nothing happened. We don’t even know what happened with that money.”

Alex of Crush Bar Workers CollectiveAn affiliate of the Portland, Oregon, branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), was part of an “underground campaign” in early 2020 at the local queer bar where they were employed. Initially, organizers “just started having meetings about workplace grievances and were slowly on-boarding people. The first major thing to organize around for us was better shift meals.” Management reacted poorly and “we got our shift meals taken away,” they said. The organizing committee created a petition to restore shift meals. But, as soon as they won, two-thirds signed, the owner at Crush Bar used pandemic shut downs to fire all workers involved in the union campaign. The owner threatened workers who arrived in large numbers to collect their last paychecks and talk with him. They also took their pictures and called the cops. The owner, along with managers and his supporters, continued by “threatening people online and in interpersonal communication,” including “outing folks and misgendering folks,” Alex told Truthout.

These are not isolated cases. Eric Artz, CEO at REI, a consumer cooperative that sells high-end outdoor gear, shared his pronouns with the group and led a land acknowledgment. lambasting workers at a Manhattan location for organizing. “We do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial,” he said in a subsequent email. The CEO of Amy’s Kitchen condemned the Teamsters for publicizing ongoing workplace injustices — including “defective equipment, blocked fire exits, workloads that lead to repetitive-stress injuries, and a lack of bathroom breaks and access to clean water” — and a boycott followed. Just recently, Amy’s fired over 300 employeesTheir production facility was closed. No Evil Foods offers vegan meats with radical-sounding names, including “El Zapatista” chorizo and “Comrade Cluck” chicken, under the tagline “Protein for All. In Plants We Trust.” Nevertheless, their owners ran an intense intimidation campaign against unionizing workers, holding captive audience meetingsThe union was accused of supporting workers in corruption and closed the plant. Staff were then fired without notice.

The boss of a homeless service agency. Central City Concern, was bold enough to call for a “no” vote for the union on videoLocated just a few miles from the airport, the Community Alliance of Tenants hired an expensive, “infamous union-busting law firm,”According to the union. The management fired all of the union-eligible workers at Voodoo Doughnut’s punk-themed company after they went on a safety strike during the worst heat wave of recent memory. Workers with Doughnut Workers United,We are also an IWW affiliate only rehired after a pressure campaign and a National Labor Relations Board ruling against the employer. These examples, like the one about Crush Bar workers are all from Portland, Oregon. But progressive bosses are cracking down on organizing workers across the country, and such conduct often only bolsters workers’ union campaigns.

Bosses Are (and Aren’t) the Best Organizers

Bosses are, as any union member will tell them, the worst thing about a union. Can be The best organizers. But whereas the misleading — and potentially illegal — anti-worker and anti-union statements from out-of-touch executives such as Howard Schultz and Jeff Bezos can spur workers to organize or escalate their campaigns, it’s a bit more complex when it comes to nonprofits and supposedly “progressive” bosses.

When bosses and managers at food co-ops, reproductive health centers and queer bars provide prospects for advancement to marginalized peoples — including people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, and poor and working-class people — they are seemingly aligning with progressive values, even while actively limiting these opportunities. When bosses and managers provide safe spaces to wear pronoun and BLM buttons or allow employees to be public about their gender identities, it’s possible, especially in small towns, that this is one of the few workplaces that would affirm workers’ identities. Often, it is these workers who organize; for example, the union effort at Starbucks stores across the nation is led by “young, female and queer employees.”

But calling the police on queer working-class peoples or ignoring the national trend to pay hazard pay to health workers during a pandemic are acts that go against the mission of many progressive nonprofits and businesses. Workers can be inspired to take action when they see their bosses act against the company’s mission, goals, and aims. Their experiences with power are educational; being disciplined, retaliated against, lied to and mistreated by a boss whom they may share values and political identities with is an opportunity to see how an organization or company — and neoliberal society as a whole —actually operates. This can lead to a renewed commitment for unionization, workplace democracy, and radical change.

Often, bosses use “middle management” to mitigate a unionization campaign, Josephine noted. “It was difficult because you’re working in close proximity and you had their utmost support when this unionization first happened,” she said, then “we were dealing with serious retaliation from them, which was hurtful and harmful.”

As a result of the bosses’ reaction to the hazard pay petition in the food co-op example, the organizing collapsed, and the union drive faltered. These organizers were afraid of being retaliated upon or losing their jobs. They also feared public scorn, loss in the community and of negatively affecting a institution they believed was important to them. By identifying the co-op’s management with its mission, the organizers were unable to address the fundamental power differentials, expand beyond their organizing committee, and convince even their most radical members to act.

No wonder. It is the foundational myth behind progressive politics and non-profits. This is self-sacrifice to mission and members. This is a myth that is difficult to dispel or overcome.

For Mission and Members

Like a progressive company’s image, a nonprofit’s charge can be powerful. The mission is what draws workers to their jobs. When a boss’s bad behavior and hypocrisy is exposed, the mission still holds sway.

“When we talk about an employer like a [reproductive health center] you’re talking about workers who are there for the mission,” Josephine said. “The pushback that we were getting from coworkers was being scared about being seen as not being a part of the mission anymore.” The fear typically experienced during a unionization campaign is compounded by fear that organizing will harm the mission. Additionally, long-term employees — especially those who are older, white, straight, cisgender and economically privileged — can become social leaders who actively rally against unionization and prevent their coworkers from organizing.

Workers at nonprofit organizations and businesses with a progressive image “are real workers who have real concerns and grievances and have a right to air them,” Knutson said. “But not everybody’s consciousness just crystallizes. Often, there’s some kind of crisis where workers just finally had enough, and they can’t go on anymore.” The organizing challenge is to address the underlying causes of the crisis: that is, the chasm between the stated mission and the organization’s ability to care for members, clients, and consumers with low wages and lack of democracy on the job. Organizers must make sure that the crisis doesn’t demobilize and discourage workers from organizing. This, according to Knutson, begins with “building cultures of solidarity that aren’t necessarily capital ‘P’ political, but basically the way you treat people, the way that you expect to be treated, and the kind of norms that you represent when you’re at work. And I think those do make a difference and cultivating a kind of a culture around that is one of the ways to take it on.”

A culture of solidarity is a way for members to “live the mission,” serve as a basis for further organizing, resist repression and survive regardless of the outcome of the organizing campaign. Crush Bar Workers Collective members helped provide food boxes for fired workers as well as rent and other expenses stipends. Although the food co-op union failed, there is still a culture of solidarity between coworkers who are still employed as well as those who have left. There is a caveat to this, especially for workers in these industries: solidarity must go beyond friendship groups and social media to all coworkers. What’s more, mutual aid fortifies relationships and builds power toward demanding concessions from the boss in the short-term while continuing and expanding struggles in the long-term.

Fairness and Fair Compensation

Nonprofits are not just for the workplace. They also serve members, clients and consumers. Community members and activists can become an “unpaid PR department” for management, Knutson said. “Bosses present workers as being selfish: that they are not seeing the goal of the mission of the nonprofit, they’re only seeing their selfish needs in terms of benefits or wages or whatever when they should be thinking about the bigger picture.” Because the boss’s argument and power extend beyond the workplace, so must our organizing and systems of solidarity.

Businesses and non-profits with progressive veneers often need steady supply of low-wage workers to fill jobs with high turnover, limited flexibility, and little input. A nonprofit, a queer bar or punk company like Voodoo Dunks can have a lot of influence over employees. prestige. But you can’t eat prestige or pay rent with it — and prestige doesn’t give you control over the working day.

These workers are organizing to demand living wages, and a say in the job. Robert Ovetz, labor scholar, recently stated that these workers are organizing to demand living wages and a say in the job. reflected:

Workers have had success beyond just securing wages and benefits, because the work is so closely linked to the mission. They are successfully flipping management’s narrative. Rather than management’s claim that higher wages threaten the mission, better wages and working conditions help employees do the work of helping others by helping themselves. Nonprofit work does not have to be about making poverty-level incomes while helping clients who are in poverty.

Fair compensation is essential for future and emerging organizing campaigns in these industries. However, it is not enough. “A lot of progressive organizations are very much invested in neoliberalism, in capitalism, even when they use language saying otherwise,” said a former labor organizer with university-based union Kiana. “There are some really good structures to make people feel heard while nothing is actually being done. Then if you are being too loud or go public, that’s when you would start to get hazed and kicked out.”

Furthermore, managers and bosses often use the language diversity, equity, and inclusion to undermine workplace democracy and unionization. One worker shared with me how their highly paid boss attempted to shame a mostly white, low-wage workforce by saying “how dare you ask a woman of color for a raise.” Another recounted a story of how a white clinic manager covered up for the anti-trans and homophobic abuse of a coworker by claiming that “diversity includes older white women, from another generation.” And the food co-op referenced above donated considerable funds to unspecified “Black causes” while claiming they could not afford to pay more than minimum wages. The boss at Crush Bar “pitted [workers] against Black Lives Matter in this absurd and bizarre way,” Alex said. “It was toxic and manipulative and just totally inaccurate.” Recently the president of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts — who in 2020 personally made $308,191 and has 10 directors who make over $100,000 on her payroll — claimed that Roe’s overturn meant that workers shouldn’t unionize. They have the money, but not for their employees.

“I would emphasize that management’s gonna manage,” said Patricia. “It doesn’t matter if they’re feeding homeless people, it doesn’t matter if they’re rescuing puppies or protecting rivers. Management is management. There is still a power dynamic that can’t be challenged by you on your own, you can only do that with the union with your fellow workers.”

Labor management meetings, workers councils, giving workers a seat on corporate boards, ensuring that workers are present at non-profit board meetings, horizontal pay structures (which limit the gap between the lowest and highest paid), transparency about financial and programmatic decision making, worker input into foundation partnerships, individual grants, employee stock ownership, transitioning to worker co-op models, and worker input into foundation partnerships, individual grants, and worker stock ownership are all ways to alter power dynamics at work. All these measures start with organizing, and lead to a union or workplace democracy.

A Union and Workplace Democracy

Every organizing campaign comes with its own set of challenges, especially for those working in nonprofits and “progressive” businesses.Workers are facing bully bosses and low wages. They also lack benefits and are denied a sustainable work/life balance. Recent efforts to organize workers in these sectors are a sign of a realization that has been long coming. Nonprofits cannot claim progressive politics, and businesses cannot pretend to be progressive without facing the challenges of unionization and workplace democracy.

Organizing is about building new relationships and power in the workplace and within the communities where they work. “It’s important to remember that your coworker relationships and how you feel about each other is ultimately the most important thing, over winning goals, over outside perception, anything like that,” Alex said. These bonds are essential for organizing and achieving better working conditions. Without them, power cannot be built and organizing cannot be sustained.

“I remembered, when I first started at the co-op, hearing that there had been union efforts before this,” Patricia said. “So, even though this campaign failed, everyone involved learned a whole lot and [we witnessed]Management acted differently. Unionization at the co-op is dormant; these movements never die.”

There are risks in organizing, and this is true for these sectors. There has been a rash nonprofits small businessesThey have chosen to share power with a unionized workforce than shutter them. The United States’ working class and left face imminent economic and political threats. Our task is to organize our workplaces and democratically manage them, while avoiding the pitfalls of previous generations. “There’s risk of getting pulled into the logic of managing a business in a capitalist context, but I think the positive side of it is conceiving of something different and conceiving of us in power, even though it’s on a micro scale,” Knutson said. “And I think all those are worth it.”

A common adage is that there is “no ethical consumption under capitalism.” To this we should add that there are no ethical workplaces, either — only better ones, which have collective bargaining agreements or are organized by solidarity unionsWith power on the shop floor

* In this article several names and workplaces have been changed. Interviewees expressed concern about retaliation at future or current places of employment and wanted to protect ongoing organizing campaigns.