Unionizing the Non-profit Sector

Naomi Schaefer Riley & James Piereson

Summer 2023

In 2022, the president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the executive director of Washington-Baltimore News Guild Local 32035, which now represents about half of SPLC’s employees, announced a collective-bargaining agreement. The new contract was “historic,” said Esteban Gil, an SPLC union negotiator. “The more of us in our field who unionize,” he added, “the better we can serve our missions by practicing what we preach.”

The effort to unionize the far-left advocacy organization was launched in 2019 after a group of employees complained that SPLC leadership had engaged in sexual and racial discrimination. The SPLC’s board ultimately fired Morris Dees, the group’s co-founder, and the organization’s legal director was forced to resign.

Yet the complaints on the part of employees arose from issues outside of harassment and discrimination. They claimed that they were overworked and burned out, that they were underpaid, and that the organization had departed from its mission. As Gil explained, the SPLC “had a problem with mismanagement and toxicity.”

The group of employees supported unionization for a mix of reasons: They wanted better pay and working conditions, but they also wished to show that the SPLC would remain ideologically aligned with progressive principles. The question as to which goal — compensation or ideology — is more important to union organizers at the SPLC and, increasingly, other non-profit organizations, is worth exploring in greater depth.


The SPLC, which has an endowment of more than $700 million, offered its workers a good deal: More pay and benefits, including two weeks of paid leave for “gender-affirming care,” plus more opportunities for remote work and priority in future job openings. The group also set up a labor-management committee to work on race and equity issues.

The success of unionization efforts at the SPLC has inspired workers at other non-profit organizations — especially left-leaning ones — to consider union campaigns of their own. Employees at several high-profile non-profits, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Brookings Institution, and the Urban Institute, have unionized. Employees at the National Women’s Law Center unionized in 2020, while those working for the Guttmacher Institute voted to do so in 2022. Other organizations with large staffs spread out in offices around the country, such as Planned Parenthood, are also dealing with unionization campaigns. According to a recent cover story in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, non-profits have witnessed a surge in such campaigns in recent years:

Roughly two dozen museums have unionized in the past three years....The Nonprofit Professional Employees Union has grown from 300 workers at 12 organizations in 2018 to 1,500 workers at nearly 50 organizations today. In 2019, the Office and Professional Employees International Union started an offshoot to represent nonprofit employees. Its Nonprofit Employees United now represents workers at 68 organizations. The NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America went from having five unions recognized in 2019 to 44 today. In New York City, about two-thirds of the 170 social-service organizations that are members of the Human Services Council have some union presence.

Robert Bruno, a University of Illinois professor of labor and employment relations, notes: “Nonprofits like Planned Parenthood are driven by their mission. That mission status can be used to persuade workers that they should sacrifice more than your average production worker.” In other words, non-profit employees could feel compelled to accept less pay in exchange for working on behalf of idealistic causes.

But this trade-off may not be as appealing now as it was a decade or two ago. In fact, the opposite may be the case: Because non-profit employees are generally youthful and progressive in their views, they are likely more attracted than ever to the promises unionization offers.

Employees seeking to form unions face significant hurdles in the current economic climate. Union campaigns are more successful during economic downturns, when workers are worried about compensation, job security, and better working conditions. In tight labor markets like the one we are experiencing now, workers have greater freedom to negotiate their own terms of employment as individuals rather than as members of unions. This is especially true among the highly educated professionals who work for non-profit organizations. As the CEO of one public-interest law firm observed, “it makes me laugh that these litigators who work for the Southern Poverty Law Center need a union to negotiate their contracts.”

Moreover, unions have been in decline across the United States in recent decades. While the concept of unionization is widely popular among Americans (with 71% support), only one in 10 workers is actually a member of a union — that number is about half what it was in 1983. People might like the idea of unionization, but they care much less for its immediate effects when they show up in the form of strikes, rigid work rules, and questionable performance. During the Covid-19 lockdowns in New York’s suburban schools, a friend told one of the authors that she had always supported unions for coal miners but had less sympathy for teachers’ unions after witnessing how they prioritize the interests of teachers over the education of her children.

While there have been some recent high-profile unionization campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks franchises, unions are struggling to find more members. Now that earlier waves of unionization in factories and the public sector have run their course, union leaders are looking to the non-profit sector as an area ripe for expansion.

One way they’ve tried pursuing this strategy is by asking state and local governments to exert pressure on the non-profits they work with. In Chicago, for instance, the recently passed Human Service Workforce Advancement ordinance requires that human-service organizations, as a condition of working with the city, have in place a “labor peace agreement.” Such agreements prohibit employers from opposing or disrupting unionization efforts among their employees.

While unions pushed the mayor and city council to approve the measure, non-profit leaders fear that the ordinance will cause them financial hardship at a time when they are already having trouble paying competitive wages. Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago recently expressed “solidarity” with non-profits in a letter to local officials while also acknowledging the sector “needs more funding to fulfill our mission and our commitments to our employees.” The city’s chamber of commerce was more dramatic, noting that the rule could force non-profits to cut back on services or even close.

But as unionization has waned in the public and private for-profit sectors, union organizers are running out of other options.


The growth of unions over the past century occurred in two waves.

First, trade-union membership surged after 1935 with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which gave private-sector workers aiming to form unions the authority to bargain with management on employees’ behalf. As a result, and in spite of strong opposition from management and a string of violent strikes in the late 1930s, union membership jumped from 3.6 million members that year to more than 10 million in 1941.

Thanks to wartime cooperation between unions and management and general post-war prosperity, the conflicts gave way to more peaceful and stable labor relations during the 1950s. Union membership peaked later that decade, making up well over 30% of the private-sector workforce. Those numbers leveled off and declined in the 1960s and 1970s as heavily unionized industries — especially auto and steel — moved off shore in response to increased automation, intensifying foreign and domestic competition, and rising costs of employing unionized workers. That trend continued in subsequent decades as foreign competition ramped up and the proportion of service workers (who are more difficult to organize) rose. Today, only about 6% of private-sector workers belong to a union.

As private-sector membership leveled off toward the end of the 1950s, a second wave of union growth took shape, with union leaders looking to the public sector as a potential source of new members. Two hurdles stood in their way. The first was Section 2 of the NLRA, which exempted public employees from coverage under its collective-bargaining clauses. The second was the fact that political leaders across the spectrum generally agreed that there was no legitimate role for unions in the public sector.

Union leaders challenged that consensus in the 1960s and 1970s as state after state approved collective-bargaining arrangements for teachers, police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, and other public employees. The unionization movement coincided with the rapid expansion of state and local budgets in those same decades — a trend supported by the unions. Public-union membership exploded from around 400,000 members in the early 1960s to 4 million by 1970.

That decade, union leaders, ignoring laws prohibiting strikes in the public sector, used work slowdowns and strikes to secure wage and salary increases, along with organizational advantages. Then in the 1980s, labor turmoil eased as unions found they could win their demands without strikes. As some pointed out, the unions were now able to elect the politicians with whom they would negotiate. And it was not possible for public-sector employers to offshore their operations.

Today, over 7 million of the 21 million public employees across the country belong to unions — a number that has leveled off and even declined slightly in recent decades. The National Education Association is now the largest labor union in the United States. Nevertheless, those unions face increasing public opposition to their demands, suggesting that the decades of expansion among teachers, service workers, and office staff in the public sector are coming to an end.

This is one reason why union leaders are looking beyond traditional markets in the private and public sectors to reach workers in other areas, such as non-profit advocacy groups (like the SPLC) and think tanks (like the Brookings Institution). Additionally, union entrepreneurs have long viewed higher education as a potential area for expansion — especially in public institutions that employ large numbers of service workers, graduate students, and adjunct faculty. Having exhausted other sectors, organized labor now views the nation’s colleges and universities as increasingly attractive targets for unionization efforts.


Campaigns to organize higher education began slowly in the 1960s, achieving some success among service workers while making little headway among graduate students and regular faculty members due to rapid turnover among students and the reluctance of established professors to affiliate with unions. Instead of joining union campaigns, these professors looked to professional associations like the American Association of University Professors to represent their interests in protecting tenure and securing better salaries and working conditions.

Cultural clashes between more conservative union members representing the AFL-CIO and left-leaning graduate students and faculty members also posed problems. Union leaders wanted better pay and working conditions for members, whose main goals were to own a home, educate their children, and join the middle class — goals generally sneered at by university-affiliated faculty and graduate students. These leaders had little interest in the cultural and ideological preoccupations of graduate students and college faculty.

Unionization efforts at institutions of higher education were also circumscribed by two court rulings that occurred during that period. In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in National Labor Relations Board v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago that the NLRA does not cover teachers at religious schools and colleges. And in the 1980 case of National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, the Court held that tenured and tenure-track professors are “managerial employees” and therefore are not covered by the NLRA’s collective-bargaining arrangements. These rulings effectively thwarted unionization of faculty at private institutions and forced those at public institutions to rely on state-by-state laws that permitted unionization among public-sector employees. These laws were readily available in union-friendly states like California, New York, and Michigan, though not in many others.

For all of these reasons, the union movement in higher education had greater success at public institutions than at private ones. According to a report published in 2012 by the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, around 25% of faculty and staff at four-year public institutions were represented by a union or collective-bargaining arrangement.

The union movement in higher education picked up speed in the 21st century in response to budget cuts and attacks on the tenure system. By 2020, according to a report issued by the same group, 39% of faculty and staff at all public institutions belonged to unions. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association represent many of these employees in collective-bargaining agreements with institutions, while the California Faculty Association represents nearly 30,000 professors and staff in the California state university system.

While more prevalent at public institutions, union campaigns have made surprising headway in private institutions in recent years. According to the reports mentioned above, there were 148 bargaining units in private institutions in 2020 representing over 40,000 members — nearly double the number from eight years earlier. Many of the units in these institutions are composed of adjunct professors and graduate students, who are signing on to union campaigns at a more rapid rate than ever before.

Adjunct professors, who are not candidates for tenure and are paid a fraction of the salaries of tenured professors doing the same work, are an expanding feature of campus life. A few decades ago, adjuncts and other non-tenured professors made up around 20% of faculty members. Today, some 46% of faculty members across the country fit that description. Between 1998 and 2012, the number of adjunct and part-time faculty belonging to unions doubled from 76,000 to nearly 150,000. That number continues to increase as budgets are squeezed and institutions hire more adjunct faculty.

In addition, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2016 that graduate students and teaching assistants at private institutions have a right to unionize. In response, graduate students at Harvard voted to unionize in partnership with the United Auto Workers; those at Tufts and Boston University did the same in partnership with the Service Employees International Union.

These factors will undoubtedly spur more union campaigns among graduate students and adjunct faculty in the future. As Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor at Indiana University, notes, many college and university employees look at their institutions’ large endowments and wonder why they aren’t entitled to more of those funds. They also see the revenue coming in from tuition. “If you’re an employee,” says Lenkowsky, “why shouldn’t you want your share of the pot?” The president of Indiana University (and other schools) “will justify her salary by saying that her organization is as complicated as a Fortune 500 company. If that’s the case, why would the university employees be any less likely to unionize than those at General Motors?”

As universities come to more closely resemble businesses, adjunct faculty and graduate students are no longer willing to “trade a certain amount of remuneration for the value of serving a cause.” “These institutions,” Lenkowsky continues, “are engaged in providing a whole variety of services to different entities including government. From that point of view, why should a junior faculty member or graduate student think of themselves as engaged in anything other than institutional maintenance and growth?”

The risks of unionization during this volatile time for higher education are real. As Richard Vedder of Ohio University notes, following in the path of Detroit is dangerous. “The insistence by American auto workers on this protection and that protection — they became too expensive and basically voted themselves out of jobs.”

This is certainly an issue for graduate students and adjunct professors: As they become more expensive, institutions will inevitably cut back their numbers. Unionization efforts among adjuncts also threaten to push away prospective students, resulting in lower tuition revenue. In 2019, the faculty of Wright State went on strike after two years of contract negotiations with the administration. The strike lasted less than a month, but it occurred during a difficult period for the university’s enrollment, which fell by 40% between 2011 and 2021. While the decline in enrollment began before 2019 and was exacerbated by the pandemic, parents and students were shocked by the strike. Wright State is not a school full of wealthy customers; if students are going to put their hard-earned money and time into a college degree, they expect professors to show up to do their jobs.

Yet because of the large endowments of certain private institutions and government funding of public universities, higher education has remained largely insulated from the consequences of unionization. Aaron Withe, CEO of the Freedom Foundation, observes that private universities with large endowments “don’t need funding from students. They are not accountable to the customer base the same way that non-profits are.” That being said, there are plenty of private universities that do not have large endowments and may regret this experiment. But they, too, are being kept afloat, primarily through government dollars. Few strings are attached to the grants and loans funding the operating costs of these schools.

Withe is convinced that won’t be the case for other non-profits. “Non-profits are the epitome of capitalism,” he asserts. “They exist to solve a problem and have to find supporters to fund that work. If you have employees who aren’t providing a service, then you can’t compensate them.”


Of course nowadays, while increased costs associated with unionized employees are still inevitable, it’s not safe to assume that employees seek to unionize primarily to raise their compensation.

Daniel DiSalvo, a professor at the City College of New York, believes that unionization efforts at both universities and non-profits today are driven more by workers’ desire to exert control over the organization’s leadership than by wage or salary demands. When thousands of Rutgers University faculty and graduate students went on strike earlier this spring, they were looking not only for greater compensation but also faculty oversight of the “pay equity process.” They also wanted to empower the University Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) to hold the administration accountable for DEI initiatives.

DiSalvo notes that at his school, the unions are demanding more administrative positions to help with DEI goals, even though the addition of these positions may actually shrink the resources available to compensate teachers: “Those administrative costs eat into salaries,” he observes. “They forestall other opportunities.”

When compensation does enter the picture, it too is viewed through the lens of social justice. As DiSalvo says, union organizers at non-profits “believe in pay equity between men and women, people of different races.” While these might be worthy goals, organizers see equity “understood as uniformity.” Katie Barrows, the communications director for the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees, told Politico that the whole idea of working one’s way up an organization has “excluded a lot of folks from the industry for a long time...especially people of color and other minority groups.” The same article described the move toward collective bargaining at left-wing think tanks like Brookings and the Urban Institute as generational in nature: Members of an age cohort “attuned to structural inequality [are] not going to see the old model of post-collegiate, pay-your-dues penury as charming. Rather, they see it as something that benefits people who graduate without student loans.”

Organizations that are not explicitly political are nonetheless trying to signal their ideological commitments. They’re saying, as DiSalvo puts it: “We are unionized and that is how we show our left-wing bona fides. We treat our workers right. We are modeling the transformation we want to see.”

DiSalvo believes that donors will be willing to let non-profits go pretty far down this road. Some are going to be okay with raising wages a bit. Others will see such moves as aligned with their own ideology. But donors will eventually notice “when an organization has people who aren’t doing any work or when half the staff is engaged in union work” instead of the actual mission of the group. “There is a point at which they say we can’t keep going on like this. We will withdraw.”

The costs of increasing staff salaries to keep up with equity goals will also multiply quickly. As Lenkowsky notes, “by far the bulk of [non-profit] expenditures go to staff.” When staff costs “mushroom,” they create untenable financial situations. He cites an ordinance in Bloomington, Indiana, requiring organizations that receive any city contracts to pay their workers a “living wage.” Non-profits widely opposed it when it was being considered.

Another concern for donors may be the lack of workers in the office. Remote work, which became ubiquitous among non-profit organizations during the pandemic, has remained common. Office occupancy in Washington, DC, for instance, is down more than 50% from pre-pandemic levels. Part of the decline comes from federal agencies whose employees are not back at the workplace, but much of it also comes from the constellation of non-profits that revolves around those agencies.

DiSalvo notes that remote work was one of the negotiation points in recent talks between New York City and District Council 37, the Big Apple’s largest public-employee union. Even if a union doesn’t actually get remote work — and it’s hard to imagine that the police and fire departments would — management will have to pay a premium to get everyone to come to work in person. While some remote activity is going to be a regular feature of professional work, many employers (and the donors who support their organizations) know that lower levels of productivity are a real risk of the virtual workplace.


The old union model was based on separation of management and workers: Unions negotiated wages and working conditions but mostly stayed out of management issues. That was true in the auto and steel industries. That was the approach of the AFL-CIO and union leader George Meany.

Union leaders of the past also had different goals than those of today. They wanted to help lift their workers into the middle class. They wanted workers to be content with the wages and benefits they were receiving. The “new” unions are not following that model: They are as interested in controlling management as they are in raising wages.

A recent fight at the New York Times is instructive. When a group of activists and contributors to the paper sent it a letter complaining about the way it was covering issues related to transgenderism, Susan DeCarava, president of the NewsGuild of New York that represents the Times guild, posted a letter supporting the right of Times staff to criticize their paper’s leadership: “[E]mployees,” the statement read, “are protected in collectively raising concerns that conditions of their employment constitute a hostile working environment.” But the notion that covering a topic in a particular way constituted a hostile work environment didn’t sit right with the paper’s senior reporters. “Susan has no right to send out letters regarding editorial content without consulting with the membership,” wrote Times reporter Stephanie Saul. “Criticism of workplace conditions does not include attacking the journalism of other members. I strongly object to this letter and I would hope other members of the unit agree with me.”

In a similar dustup a couple of years ago, the newspaper’s union failed to defend veteran science reporter Donald McNeil from being forced to resign after a student on a trip accused him of using a racial slur in discussing whether someone else could use racial slurs.

The Times is not a non-profit, of course. But its staff and management share many of the same sensibilities as those working for non-profits and universities. And if unions at these organizations are going to focus less on traditional union goals like higher compensation and more on pushing the leadership of the organization to become more woke, it’s not clear how “collective” their bargaining will be.

James Piereson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.