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Isn’t it time we create a labor union in Grand Rapids for those who work for Non-Profits

September 27, 2021

There are thousands of people in the Greater Grand Rapids area who work for a Non-Profit organization. Many of you who are reading this article work in the Non-Profit sector, and virtually everyone knows someone who works in that field.

I have worked for several different Non-profits organizations in my lifetime. I current work as a Direct Care worker for Hope Network. When there are issues or problems that those of us who are workers have to deal with, we have to either represent ourselves as individuals when speaking to management or we have to just grin and bear it.

I read a recent piece by someone who was fired by the Community Media Center here in Grand Rapids. The article provides a horrific account of what the author had to endure. The opening sentence of the article reads:

My own experience at the Wealthy Theatre, part of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, shows how a lack of accountability for nonprofit leadership leaves open the door to ongoing abuses of power — and people.

The power that Non-Profit Directors have is similar to that of corporate CEOs, especially if the workers at said corporation don’t have a union. It’s even worse if you live in a Right to Work state, which we do here in Michigan.

However, the difference between working for a large corporation and working for a Non-Profit, is that people generally like the work and often embrace the mission of Non-Profits. In my case, I do work to provide basic daily needs to residents who have have serious injuries, plus I always try to make those I work with to feel like they are valued as a human being, even if much of the rest of the society doesn’t see them that way.

The thing that profits often do, is to take advantage of people’s good will and commitment to the mission. People go the extra mile, are willing to work long hours or put up with a dysfunctional work environment because, “at least I get to do work that makes a difference.” And while I understand this sentiment, it is deeply problematic. It is deeply problematic because it says that we are willing to accept exploitation while working for a Non-Profit.

Part of this is due to how we see and value our jobs, especially within a Capitalist system. We internalize the exploitation or we too often dismiss it as a marginal aspect of the work. 

Within workplaces, we often think of labor unions as a potential benefit because they fight for better wages. This is true, but labor unions also have a history of fighting for working conditions and even a larger democratic environment. Creating a more democratic climate within Non-Profits seems like a non-brainer, but as anyone who has worked in non-profits will tell you democratic principles or horizontal organizing are rare. Non-Profits after operate like corporations, with a very top down framework, with a board of directors and often little room for those who do most of the work to have any input or say on daily tasks, on projects and on the matter of creating a work culture that is healthy and dynamic.

The experience of people working within the Non-Profit world, which has not been around all that long, has led people to refer to this field of work as the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. Part of this terminology is related to the relationship between foundations – often the primary funding sources for NPOs – and the de-politicization of work that used to be part of social movements. (See, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, a book put out by the group INCITE!) 

However, I would argue that the exploitation and limited opportunities for workers to be able to defend themselves without retaliation within the Non-Profit world, is a central part of the concept of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. The good news it, it doesn’t have to stay that way. We can create a union for Non-Profit workers. 

The head of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU) said this in 2020:

During a two-week period in the month of April, as the coronavirus crisis raged, the economy buckled, and office workers fled to their homes, the NPEU announced seven successful union drives, boosting their number of shops by a full third. That record is likely unmatched anywhere in the union world. Blado says that the organizing at all of them had begun before the crisis, but was accelerated by the urgency of the moment. It doesn’t hurt that all of those workers now have a vehicle to participate in the conversation about when it is safe to reopen their offices.  “This is exactly why people have chosen to have a union,” Blado says,  “because of situations like this where management could [otherwise] make a unilateral decision.”

So, who wants to start a labor union for Non-Profit workers in Grand Rapids? Where do we start? Who can hold a meeting to convene those who labor within the Non-Profit Industrial Complex? In Grand Rapids if you want to start a business or if you want to be an entrepreneur, people will throw money at you, but the mention of organizing workers…..not so much.

Here is a link to the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union,, or we can create something new. Either way, let’s organize!!!!

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