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

The general manager at a sustainable, organic, member-owned food co-op. The executive director of a reproductive health center. A collective board at a community soup kitchen. The owners of a socialist-themed plant-based meats company. The bosses at a punk doughnut chain and a queer bar. What do they all have in common? 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.

At first glance, nonprofit organizations like Planned Parenthood have little in common with companies like Starbucks. One provides essential reproductive and health care services to diverse communities and is governed by a board of directors that is often comprised of local community leaders. The other is a purveyor of standardized caffeinated beverages and a massive global corporate empire with untouchable billionaire CEOs and directors. But both organizations leverage their progressive personas to cover up power imbalances, economic inequalities and exploitation of their workers in the “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 7250 and a longtime organizer. The nonprofit sector developed in the 1970s, in part to provide essential services in areas 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. Said nonprofits rely on the good will of donors and a steady supply of those willing to work for the mission, often without decent wages or a say in their workplaces. In contrast with directors on corporate boards, those who serve on nonprofit boards are entirely removed from the processes of production, services provided, workplace conditions, and demands of both their employees and clients. 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. But nonprofit directors may lack a personal economic incentive and hence that pressure point.

Cultivating a progressive and inclusive image has attracted a loyal, diverse customer base and workforce for massive global corporations and small businesses alike. But the veneer of diversity and inclusion often covers for low wages with no benefits, hyper-exploitation with either long or irregular hours, and lack of power on the job. People from marginalized communities, like queer people and people of color, are often drawn to work for companies with a progressive image, only to find that they regularly experience the same discrimination and abuse found in many workplaces. Signage that states “all are welcome here,” is directed at customers and the public, not employees. Even if these workplaces are more diverse, they are often no more democratic or 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. Moreover, said ideals are often lacking a class and power 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. To the managers at the co-op, however, pronoun and BLM buttons were a step in the right direction; efforts to form a union and circulate a petition calling for hazard pay for frontline workers during a pandemic were steps 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 makes $220,000.00 a year. So, [the pay cut was] not very 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 the Crush Bar Workers Collective, an 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 launched a petition to reinstate shift meals but as soon as they won, with two-thirds of the workers signing, the owner of Crush Bar used the pandemic shutdowns to fire all the employees involved in the union campaign. When the workers arrived en masse to pick up their final paychecks and speak with the owner, they were threatened, had their pictures taken, and the cops were called. 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 incidents. Eric Artz, CEO of REI, a consumer co-op that sells expensive outdoor gear, shared his pronouns and led a land acknowledgement before 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. Likewise, 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 employees and shuttered their production facility. 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 meetings, accusing the local union supporting the workers of corruption, and then shuttering their production facility entirely, firing staff without severance.

The boss of a homeless service agency, Central City Concern, was bold enough to call for a “no” vote for the union on video; a few miles away, the Community Alliance of Tenants hired an expensive, “infamous union-busting law firm,” according to the union. When the recently unionized workers of the punk-themed Voodoo Doughnut went out on a safety strike in the middle of the worst heat wave in recent memory, management fired them all. Workers with Doughnut Workers United, also an IWW affiliate, were only rehired after a pressure campaign and a National Labor Relations Board ruling against the employer. These examples, as with the one about the 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

As any union member will tell you, bosses 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. But often it is these very workers who are organizing; the union effort being led at Starbucks stores across the country, for example, is led by “young, female and queer employees.”

However, calling the cops on working-class queer peoples or ignoring a national trend to award hazard pay to health care workers during a pandemic is conduct that contradicts the mission of many nonprofits and progressive businesses. Seeing a boss act counter to the mission, goals, aims and progressive politics of an organization or company is enlightening to workers and can spur them to action. 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. The result can be a renewed commitment to 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. Here, organizers were not only afraid of retaliation or losing their jobs, but also of public scorn, loss of standing in the community, of negatively affecting an institution they believed in, and upsetting bosses who ate lunch with them even as they controlled their working lives. 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. The foundational myth of nonprofits and progressive politics is self-sacrifice for mission and members. This is a narrative that is often difficult to dispel, much less overcome.

For Mission and Members

Like a progressive company’s image, a nonprofit’s charge can be powerful. Workers are drawn to their jobs for the mission as well as the members. 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. Most of all, organizers must prevent the crisis from demobilizing and discouraging 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. Along with community supporters, Crush Bar Workers Collective members were able to provide food boxes to fired workers and stipends for rent and other expenses. While the food co-op union faltered, there remains a culture of solidarity among coworkers who are still employed and those who have moved on. But there is an important caveat, especially when considering workers in these industries: solidarity and mutual aid must extend beyond friendship groups and social networks 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.

For Fairness and Fair Compensation

The mission of nonprofits extends beyond the worksite to members, clients, consumers and supporters in the larger community. 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.

Nonprofits and businesses with progressive veneers often require a steady supply of low-wage workers to perform jobs with high turnover rates, scant flexibility and slim input. In addition to the sway that mission and members have over employees, working at a nonprofit, popular queer bar and a punk company like Voodoo Doughnuts has 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 on the job. As labor scholar Robert Ovetz recently reflected:

Because the work is so closely tied to the mission, workers have found some success going beyond simply wages and benefits issues. 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 no longer has to mean making poverty-level wages while helping clients in poverty.

For emerging and future organizing campaigns in these sectors, bringing workers out of poverty through fair compensation is vital but 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.”

Moreover, bosses and managers utilize the language of diversity, equity and inclusion to undermine unionization and workplace democracy. 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, just 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.”

Ways to change power dynamics at work include labor management meetings, workers councils, giving workers a say on corporate boards, ensuring workers are present at nonprofit board meetings, horizontal pay structures (which limits the gap between lowest and highest paid), transparency around financial and programmatic decisions, worker input into foundation partnerships and individual grants, employee stock ownership, and transitioning to a worker co-op model. All of these measures begin with organizing and lead toward a union and 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 confronting bully bosses, low wages, a lack of benefits, and the denial of a sustainable work-life balance and control over the process and product of their working day. Recent efforts to organize in these sectors represent a reckoning that is a long time coming. Nonprofits cannot profess progressive politics and businesses cannot hide behind a progressive facade without addressing the challenges brought by unionization and workplace democracy.

Organizing is about creating new relationships and relations of power on the job as well as in the industries and communities these workers are part of. “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. Without these bonds, demands for better working conditions will not have the force needed to succeed, 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] shifts in how management acted. Unionization at the co-op is dormant; these movements never die.”

All organizing comes with risks, and that is true of these sectors. There has been a rash of nonprofits and small businesses that have shuttered rather than share power with a unionized workforce. There are also imminent political and economic threats facing the working class and the left in the United States. Our task is to organize and democratize our workplaces while avoiding the pitfalls of prior 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 unions with power on the shop floor.

* In this article several names and workplaces have been changed. Those interviewed are concerned about retaliation at current or future places of employment and want to protect ongoing organizing campaigns.