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Non-profit Employees Shouldn't Shy Away from Unionization

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
NSPIRG employees Andrew Jantzen (left) and Alia Saied display the flag of their new union, the Service Employees International Union. (Jason Edwards photo)
NSPIRG employees Andrew Jantzen (left) and Alia Saied display the flag of their new union, the Service Employees International Union. (Jason Edwards photo)

By Jason Edwards

Last week employees of the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research group (NSPIRG), a non-profit research and advocacy organization, voted to unionize.  Their decision follows that of the staff of many other non-profit groups across Canada. 

NSPIRG is a small organization, located in the Dalhousie Student Union Building. Its employees engage in various research and administrative tasks, working toward its mission of linking research with action for social and environmental justice, within an anti-oppression framework.

They are joining the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2, who have helped workers from non-profit groups across the country get organized.  Charity, advocacy and professional organizations' staff, like those of The Salvation Army and Ontario Nurses Association, have unionized for various reasons.

Many of these people enjoy working in the non-profit sector as it allows them to work toward goals about which they are passionate. They also understand that liking their jobs does not preclude their right to bargain collectively. 

Andrew Jantzen, of NSPIRG, explains: “We all enjoy and appreciate our work at NSPIRG.  By joining a union, we now have the resources to ensure that our jobs are secure. This means we can work toward the organization's goals more effectively.”  In this instance, employees sought unionization to ensconce their positions at jobs they loved.

The union also recognizes that the non-profit is working toward admirable goals. SEIU Local 2's Nova Scotia Branch president, Loretta Melanson, said she is “looking forward to contributing to amicable labour-relations at the PIRG.  Its work benefits our members, students and the entire community.”

NSPIRG's board of directors members have recognized that having unionized workers will contribute to a harmonious employment relationship.  “When we were told that staff wanted to form a union, we were immediately supportive,” says board bember John Hutton. “By having organized employees, we can rely on a stable, fair relationship.” 

These examples put to the rest the mistaken opinion that non-profit workers cannot exercise their right to unionize.  While the goals of a non-profit are often impressive, this does not guarantee a positive work environment or fair treatment. In fact, the altruistic nature of such work can often serve to undermine workers' rights.  The notion that “you don't do it for the money” is a powerful rhetorical weapon that is often wielded against selfless working people.

This problem can be compounded by the casual relationship staff and volunteer boards of directors often have. When a volunteer board takes on the task of employer, it can be overwhelmed by the vast ocean of employment legislation it must now navigate. Having a union ensures that employees' rights are not inadvertently disregarded by employers who have limited human-resources experience.

When an individual seeks employment in a field where she/he can feel fulfilled in a way that is more than financial, that decision should be venerated. Non-profit organizations who benefit from the work of altruistic employees should, in turn, recognize those workers' efforts through fair treatment and decent remuneration.  As civil-society groups gain greater esteem in the Atlantic Canadian polity, it is important that their employees continue to exercise their right to unionize.

Jason Edwards is an organizer with SEIU.

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While I'm by all means in agreement that folk who work at non-profits ought to organize as workers, I wonder what the appeal of joining a huge corporate union is, especially in light of their endorsement of Mulclair (gag) for NDP leader, their parent union's tie to the American Democratic Party, etc. It hardly seems in line with NSPIRG's broader political commitments.

While I want to say congrats on successfully organizing, I'm not sure I understand what exactly has been accomplished here.

Thanks for commenting.  In

Thanks for commenting.  In today's political climate it's especially important that labour and the left engage in meaningful criticism of our own policies and actions. 

I understand your points regarding the "lessser-evilism" that is exercised by most organized labour groups today.  I tend to agree with your implicit argument that labour should be working harder to move the political spetrum left rather than accepting neoliberalism.  It's an important debate that will be enriched by new members like the employees of NSPIRG.

Concerning the size of SEIU itself, the Canadian locals are not as large as those in the US (though some of the stronger American locals have made significant gains in otherwise low-wage sectors by virtue of their size) and operate with  substantial autonomy.  Units also vote on their own contracts, so small groups like this one exercise complete bargaining agency.

As for the union and employer having potentially dissimilar goals, that is to be expected.  The union is first and foremost an agent of the employees.  When asking what is accomplshed, it's important not to overlook more finite and tangible achievments, like job-security or legal resources.

I agree that the goals of NSPIRG do not perfectly mirror those of the union.  Howvever, there is sufficient overlap that the two will operate harmoniously and contribute positively to one-another's many shared objectives.


Thanks . . .

. . . for your response. Given that these things often get heated and mudsling-y, I appreciate the tone of your disagreement, and thought it would be worth it to acknowledge as much.

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