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Major Public Defense Nonprofit in New York Is Unionizing

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One of the nation’s most respected public defender nonprofits is unionizing, the latest in a surge of union drives at prominent nonprofits across the country.

The Bronx Defenders, a large nonprofit that defends low-income people in the Bronx, New York, told management today that they intend to unionize with the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, an affiliate of the UAW. The proposed union will have about 270 members, covering virtually the entire non-management staff. Of those, about 100 are not attorneys, including everyone from social workers to paralegals to facilities workers.

Employees at the Bronx Defenders cited issues like pay, health care benefits, and equality of professional development and promotions as motivating factors for the union drive. But one factor stood out more than any other: the potential for burnout among public defenders and those who work alongside them.

“I’ve seen people who were hired with me who left already because of burnout,” says Imani Waweru, a staff attorney in the criminal defense practice who has been at the organization for less than two years. “What we do every day is advocate. Why not have a place we can advocate for ourselves?”

Naima Drecker-Waxman, an associate in the immigration practice, agrees that burnout is a real threat—and believes that improvements in working conditions for the Bronx Defenders staff will translate to better outcomes for the clients. “We need to ensure our workforce is treated with respect in order to serve our clients,” she says.

Discussions about unionizing began quietly a year ago, and the effort to collect union cards intensified in the past couple of months. (Union drives at nonprofits usually win voluntary recognition from management, thanks to the inherent pressure for the organization to live up to the ideals it espouses. Employees at the Bronx Defenders expect the same.) The culmination of the union campaign comes against the backdrop of the coronavirus crisis, which has hit both the Bronx and the incarcerated population of New York City with savage force. The employees of the Bronx Defenders see their union drive as part of a larger struggle to improve a justice system that often seems unable to keep up with the demands of the crisis. “We’re all sharing this burden of a court system that’s not responsive to our needs,” says Drecker-Waxman.

Alex Shalom, the union organizer at the ALAA, says his union has already won protective equipment and hazard pay in other places. “We’re seeing the tangible benefits of an organized workforce,” he says. “Our members are of no use to clients if they’re sick.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 29, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. 


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A Quiet Frenzy of Union Organizing Has Gripped the Nonprofit World

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“The reason we all work at nonprofits is because we support the mission of the nonprofits,” says Kayla Blado, who works at the Economic Policy Institute. It makes sense. Like many fields that involve doing something good for the world, nonprofit work tends to come with low pay and long hours. But now, more than ever before, it comes with something else: a union drive. The nonprofit union wave is rising right along with the intensity of the crises that nonprofits are dealing with in our bad, bad world.

Over the past two years, there has been a legitimate boom in nonprofit union campaigns. All of those that have gone public have been successful. Alongside the recent rise in unionization at media outlets, museums and cultural institutions, nonprofit workers are part of an unprecedented uprising of labor organizing in white collar professions.

At the center of it all is the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), where Kayla Blado serves as president. The NPEU has been around since 1998, when EPI unionized, but two years ago it began aggressively attracting new nonprofits. Now—seemingly all of a sudden—it represents 27 different workplaces, including influential D.C. institutions like the Center for American Progress, Open Markets Institute and J Street. Though affiliated with the national union IFPTE, the NPEU is run as a volunteer operation (with a single quarter-time paid organizer), with an executive board made up of members and an organizing strategy driven by word of mouth in the tight-knit D.C. nonprofit world. The numbers tell the story of how dramatic and recent the surge in organizing has been: According to Blado, the NPEU has 250 dues-paying members, another 400 bargaining contracts now, and more than a thousand organizing at shops that are not public yet.

So far, the NPEU has won voluntary recognition in every single union campaign it has organized—a remarkable record that reflects skillful use of the fact that the management of most progressive nonprofits don’t want to be seen as anti-union (even if they wish that the union didn’t exist). The fact that in multiple recent campaigns management has taken weeks to voluntarily recognize the union hints at the grudging nature of their acceptance of the new, organized reality of their work force.

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.”

At the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, staffers began discussing unionizing last fall. After a couple of months shopping around for various unions, they settled on NPEU. “We felt really connected to NPEU because they’re mission driven, and we’re similarly a very mission driven organization,” says Morgan Conley, a national election protection coordinator there. Employees saw their union drive, which management announced an “intent” to recognize in April, as perfectly aligned with the group’s civil rights purpose. “We wanted to make sure we were making the right decision for the Lawyers Committee,” she says. “We felt this would really ensure the success and viability of the organization.”

At progressive nonprofits, the decision of how intense and public to make any labor battle is a tricky one. Unlike at regular companies, many of the employees in the union may feel torn between protecting the organization’s reputation, which is valuable for serving a purpose they believe in, and protecting their own labor rights. The NPEU’s surge in organizing no doubt benefits from the increased militancy of a younger generation of workers—not just in nonprofits, but everywhere—who are already living through the second economic crisis of their careers. “Many non-profits expect that mission-driven work will keep workers, especially younger workers, satisfied with lower pay,” says Alyson Samach, a staffer at the liberal pro-Israel nonprofit J Street, which recognized its new union last week after a month of negotiations. “Our millennial staff have already struggled to launch careers through one recession, and our Gen-Z staff are now thrust into financial instability by another. As we are all faced with a dire economic outlook, we are banding together to ensure more protections for our staff.”

That commitment to “mission” is ubiquitous as a motivation to organize. Jessie Hahn and Trudy Rebert are attorneys at the National Immigration Law Center, which works to advance the rights of low-income immigrants in America. When staffers began talking to one another about organizing many months ago, they realized there was a shared desire for transparency and some system for joint decision making at work. A union seemed like a natural fit. “We are a mission driven organization,” Hahn says. “People come to work here because they align with those values. We saw starting a union as an important way to model those values.” Rebert echoes this, noting that she and other attorneys came to the organization specifically because they want to live out those values, “not because we want to be paid the big bucks.” Despite this, the NILC Union has now been negotiating for recognition from management for more than a month. The head of NILC, Marielena Hincapié, was recently announced as a member of the Biden-Sanders immigration task force, which will be closely scrutinized for progressive bona fides.

Rather quietly, and without a paid staff, the NPEU has taken serious strides toward unionizing an industry with a good deal of inherent political power and a high public profile. Many left-leaning media outlets and allegedly liberal cultural institutions have already been through full-scale battles against their own employees who painted them as hypocritical for fighting against unionization. The NPEU has not had to do that yet, but history tells us that that day will come. (In fact, an ongoing fight for union recognition at the ACLU in California may turn into such a battle.) Everyone at the union—whose members include many lawyers, researchers, and P.R. professionals that amount to the makings of a volunteer army—indicates they aren’t scared of the fight, though they are not seeking one.

In a big picture sense, the future of the labor movement needs blue collars and white collars, for-profit and nonprofit. Each staff union campaign that NPEU wins is one step towards a world in which progressive activist organizations will be able to say that they put their money where their mouths are. “Just because you have an advanced degree doesn’t make you immune from discrimination at work, or getting fired without having just cause,” Blado says. “I think we’re creating the labor movement that we want to see.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. 


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Nonprofit Ordered To Pay $75,000 Over ‘No Pregnancy In The Workplace’ Policy

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Bryce CovertUnited Bible Fellowship Ministries, Inc., which provides housing and care to people with disabilities, will have to pay a former employee $75,000 for firing her after she became pregnant to settle a lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The organization has had a “no pregnancy in the workplace” policy in place that meant it fired anyone who became pregnant and refused to hire anyone applying for a position while pregnant. It admitted that the former employee, Sharmira Johnson, performed her job as a resource technician providing care to residents well and didn’t have any medical restrictions that would keep her from carrying out her duties. Yet it fired her, arguing it was justifiable in order to ensure her safety, that of her unborn baby, and the safety of its clients.

That argument didn’t hold up in court. U.S. District Court Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore found that United Bible “recklessly” failed to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, race, religion, and other characteristics, by having the anti-pregnancy policy. The organization also has a contract with the Texas government, which requires it to comply with anti-discrimination laws. The court held that it failed to show that all pregnant women are unable to perform their duties safely. The judge awarded Johnson about $25,000 in back pay and overtime plus interest, as well as $50,000 in damages for emotional and mental suffering.

 

“This decision is another in a long line of federal court cases rejecting employer policies based on assumptions and stereotypes about a pregnant woman’s inability to work,” said Claudia Molina-Antanaitis, the EEOC attorney in charge of the case, in a press release. “Employers cannot impose paternalistic and unsubstantiated views on the alleged dangers of pregnancy to exclude all pregnant women from employment.” United Bible didn’t respond to a request for comment.

While federal law should already prevent workplace discrimination against pregnant women, it is still pretty widespread.

Some of it is a good deal more subtle than United Bible’s blatant “no pregnancy” policy. An estimated quarter million pregnant women are told each year that they can’t have small changes like switching to lighter duty or getting a stool to sit on so that they can keep working at their jobs safely. That means many are either forced onto unpaid leave before their babies are born or simply fired. Others stick it out and risk health complications, including miscarriage.

 

But many women have claimed that they were fired almost immediately after telling their employers that they had become pregnant. These companies don’t have as explicit policies as United Bible’s, but the effect is the same. A survey of decades of cases like these shows that employers frequently rely on stereotypes about pregnant women, like the idea that they simply won’t return to work after they have their babies, and vilify them to justify firing them.

Yet it has become more and more common for pregnant women to remain in the workplace before and after they give birth. The share of first-time mothers who work during their pregnancies has increased from less than half in 1960 to two-thirds today, while 80 percent work into the last month. On the other end, nearly 60 percent of women are back at work six months after they give birth and more than 70 percent of women with young children are in the workforce.

Given the discrimination pregnant employees still face at work, some states have gone above federal law to enact stricter requirements. Forty-five have protections against pregnancy discrimination, while 14 and Washington, D.C. have laws requiring employers to give pregnant employees reasonable accommodations so they can keep working. A federal law has been introduced multiple times to require all of the country’s employers to give pregnant workers those accommodations, but it hasn’t gained traction.

This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on May 29, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Bryce Covert. Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.


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