Bigger Than Amazon

Why Nonprofit Worker Unionizing Matters

By Robert Ovetz | May/June 2022

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

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There’s an employer with nearly the same output (in terms of the value of products and services created) and about 10 times the number of workers as Amazon where unionizing has taken off in recent years: the nonprofit sector. From the health care company Kaiser Permanente and Howard University to Planned Parenthood, during the past 20 years nonprofits have experienced successful worker organizing, strikes, and strike threats, yet they have gotten very little attention. Nurses’ strikes, adjunct professor and graduate student unionization, and more recently, widespread organizing at health service and policy advocacy nonprofits, have shaken one of the largest industries in the United States.

The Nonprofit Industry

Nonprofit organizations range from trade associations, arts organizations, and foundations, to universities, social service providers, and advocacy organizations, the last three a site of robust unionization in the past decade. We often forget that unions are also nonprofit organizations. The nonprofit sector is dominated by giant health care companies, hospital chains, and universities, which together employ about one-half of nonprofit workers, according to Cause IQ, a data consulting firm focusing on nonprofits.

The sector has the third largest workforce in the U.S. economy. According to Lester Salamon and Chelsea Newhouse, experts on nonprofits, the sector totals about $1.5 trillion in output and employs about 12.5 million workers; the nonprofit sector accounted for about 5.9% of GDP in 2020. About 76% of the 1.8 million existing nonprofits are very small, with revenues under $100,000. By comparison, according to the website, which ranks com-panies by market capitalization (the total value of all a publicly traded company’s outstanding shares), Amazon is worth $1.6 trillion and employed 1.3 million workers in 2021.

The size and number of nonprofits, which are defined as organizations that have received nonprofit, tax-exempt status from the IRS, have both exploded since the neoliberal turn began in the 1970s. This growth corresponds to cuts in taxes on the rich and corporations, the savings plowed into charitable donations, and the downsizing of government services. Service-oriented nonprofits have become what Jesse, a union organizer who has helped organize nonprofit workers and is a labor scholar, described in an interview as “externalized state services” that are funded in part by tax revenues, yet are outside of the democratic control of the state or shareholders. (“Jesse” is a pseudonym to maintain anonymity due to concerns about retaliation.)

These labor-intensive services have been provided for lower wages by nonunionized workers who are attracted to the work because they believe in its mission-driven focus, and they wish to serve those in need. Once they discover the long hours, low pay, and lack of control over their work, many nonprofit workers burn out, become disillusioned, and leave.

New Organizing

Successful nurses’ strikes in recent decades have provided an inspiration for changing other parts of the nonprofit sector. In the past three years we have seen a wave of unionization campaigns at a range of nonprofits, including, prominently, the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Planned Parenthood. While some of these nonprofits have refused to recognize staff unions or laid off staff, causing workers to threaten to strike (as both of these nonprofits have), most campaigns have succeeded.

The fiery Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU) is the nonprofit equivalent of the Amazon Labor Union founded by Chris Smalls in Staten Island. NPEU was formed in 1998 when a group of workers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) decided to unionize, and it remained small until the pandemic. Affiliated with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 70, in the past four years, NPEU has grown a stunning 500%. Kaitlin Bell, NPEU communications chair and CLINIC Workers United member, told me recently, “Since 2018, NPEU has grown from 300 workers at 12 organizations to 1,300 workers at about 50 organizations.”

While NPEU is composed of big and small progressive advocacy nonprofits, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), CAP, and the Urban Institute, new worker organizing has spread through reproductive justice nonprofits as well. Planned Parenthood workers have organized unions at 10 of its 49 affiliates, doubling the number of workers who are organized in the past four years. They have achieved this despite several affiliates engaging in anti-union retaliation and, according to one source who asked to remain anonymous, captive-audience meetings to isolate and dissuade staff at the Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon from unionizing.

Planned Parenthood is a federation in which each affiliate operates independently, and the union-busting tactics belie the organization’s progressive reputation. The Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains attempted to have the Trump administration’s National Labor Relations Board block workers from unionizing. Journalist Amy Littlefield exposed an attempt by the Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas to bust a similar unionization effort in response to unsafe working conditions.

To fight union busting, reproductive justice workers transformed a website listing jobs in the reproductive health care sector,, into a hub of documenting and advocating for workers organizing against poor working conditions, long hours, and low pay.

Organizing Against the Odds

Nonprofit workers are successfully unionizing in a sector known for attracting young college graduates who want to give back and serve a justice-driven mission. These workers are realizing, as union organizer Jesse notes, that “you can’t eat prestige.” Many workers in this sector are rethinking the noble poverty of doing labor- intensive work serving others and advocating for social and political change. It is the labor-intensiveness of nonprofit work, often funded by private corporate donors who obtained their wealth by exploiting their workers, that gives nonprofit workers leverage to effectively organize.

Before the wave of organizing at Starbucks, there were the small nonprofit organizations whose unionization campaigns were mostly ignored. But there are important lessons we can learn from their organizing. They must first overcome great odds, including burnout, high turnover, undemocratic and unaccountable board management, and accusations that unions threaten justice-driven mission work. With the advantage of organizing in small shops, workers use their personal relationships and commitment to the work, as well as the people and causes they serve, to highlight the disconnect between the image of doing good with the reality of labor exploitation. These workers have turned union-busting back against management to damage an image that relies on extensive unwaged work by volunteers giving donations and organizing fundraisers.

The most effective organizing efforts have gone much further than employers’ PR campaigns. Obtaining union recognition and threatening to withdraw their labor has given workers immense power. This has allowed them to successfully demand better pay, and more staff to reduce the pressure to work even more unpaid hours. According to a 2021 Independent Sector report, the loss of 1.6 million nonprofit jobs during the first year of the pandemic has meant more work and worsening conditions for those who remain.

The Power of Unions

Conditions at nonprofits are changing as nonprofit workers have discovered that their labor, and not merely the mission that they are working to serve, is their most potent power. In these mission-driven workplaces, Jesse is seeing workers now recognize that “our work is the mission.” 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.

With their own unions, nonprofit workers are democratizing and refocusing the nonprofit organizations they work for, which are characterized by the undemocratic, top-down control of unaccountable boards and large outside funders, which sometimes overlap. According to NPEU’s Bell, some nonprofit unions have set up labor-management committees to discuss organizational policy. In one example, the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s union forced the nonprofit to endorse the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s only a matter of time before they start challenging foundation funding from elites who made their wealth exploiting workers and now use it tax-free to shape law and policy.

The growth of nonprofit worker organizing is one sector to watch for the slow resurgence of the labor movement. The unionization of nonprofits is the best way to defend public-sector workers, who have the highest rate of unionization. Unionized nonprofit workers make outsourcing and privatization more expensive and slow the further dismantling of the public sector. This is why unions such as IFPTE and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which have large numbers of members in public employment, find it necessary to support unionization in the nonprofit sector. Ultimately, continued organizing will be most effective coming from the bottom up.

is a senior lecturer in political science at San José State University, labor scholar, and organizer. He is the author of the forthcoming We the Elite: How the U.S. Constitution Serves the Few (Pluto, 2022) and is writing a book with Divya Sundar on nonprofits and capitalism for Haymarket Press.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Nonprofits account for 12.3 million jobs, 10.2 percent of pri-vate sector employment, in 2016,” The Economics Daily, August 31, 2018 (; Philanthro-py News Digest, “U.S. nonprofit sector uneven in impact and recovery, report finds,” October 14, 2021 (; Cause IQ, “2019 Nonprofit Employment Statistics,” January 10, 2020 (; Lester M. Salamon and Chelsea L. Newhouse, “The 2020 Nonprofit Employment Report,” Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, June 2020 (; Thomas Seal, “Amazon to Hire 10,000 Jobs After U.K. Emerges from Lockdown,” Bloomberg, May 14, 2021 (;;; Dennis Carter,“Planned Parenthood Drops Its Fight Against Unionizing Workers in Colorado,” Rewire News Group, August 17, 2018 (; Amy Littlefield, “The Struggle to Union-ize Planned Parenthood in Texas,” Lux, August 2021 (; Dave Jamieson, “Center For American Progress Staffers Threaten To Strike Amid Contract Fight,” HuffPost, February 2, 2022 (; Independent Sector, Health of the U.S. Nonprofit Sector, October 2021 (

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