What will happen to the volunteers?
April 26, 2013 10:17 AM   Subscribe

An non-profit organization with staff and volunteers has been non-union for its existence. Because of proposed changes by its board of directors, staff have applied to unionize. Some staff perform the same tasks as volunteers, but volunteers perform the overwhelming majority of the core work of the organization. The ratio of volunteers to staff is about 35 to 1. First, can a non profit unionize? And second, if it becomes a union shop, what will be the status of the volunteers?
posted by CollectiveMind to Work & Money (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A non-profit can absolutely unionize. In college I worked at New York's Museum Of Modern Art, which was unionized to at least some extent and is a not-for-profit art museum.

This is probably going to depend what, exactly, this nonprofit does, who is looking to unionize, and what union(s) they are working with. For instance, in my experience entertainment industry unions are EXTREMELY vigilant about the attempt to get around union contracts by using non-union labor. You have an unpaid intern so much as move a C-stand on set and union reps are going to be called. But if we're talking about an animal shelter where volunteers are going to walk dogs a few hours a week, it's probably not a big deal.
posted by Sara C. at 10:51 AM on April 26, 2013

Yeah, completely depends on the union and what their rules are. Unionization in itself doesn't preclude volunteerism.
posted by supercoollady at 10:55 AM on April 26, 2013

You haven't mentioned the jurisdiction in which the non-profit is located. For the purposes of this answer I am going to assume it is in the U.S, but state and local laws differ so I'm going to ignore that complication.

There are no federal laws that prohibit a non-profit from hiring employees who are members of a union, so yes, the employees of a non-profit can be members of a union. You might be interested in reading the The Chronicle of Philanthropy's Nonprofit Groups Turn to Unions to Organize Workers and Collaborate on Common Causes.

As regards to the status of the volunteers, that is going to depend on the contract negotiated by the union and the non-profit. In theory, there is no reason that the contract can't accommodate the non-profit's use of volunteers. A small local non-profit near me is a union workplace, but because the union and non-profit share similar goals their contract does not hinder the non-profit from making extensive use of volunteers (the union even encourages their members who work for other employers to volunteer at the non-profit).
posted by RichardP at 11:00 AM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

A lot of this depends on the union and the contract it agrees to. Assuming everyone is working in good faith now and this is mostly a move motivated by "what if" concerns, it shouldn't be hard to design a contract that maintains the current status quo.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:04 AM on April 26, 2013

The union contract will cover all of this. It will be negotiated to outline volunteer responsibilities and how they differ from paid staff responsibilities. I mean, presumably there is a reason that the paid staff are paid, right? Either most of their work is more skilled, confidential, or otherwise different from the volunteers' or they are expected to Be There Every Day For A Fixed Period Or Get Fired, whereas the volunteers have shorter hours and more flexibility - that is, their reliability is their "skill". Otherwise, the whole organization would just run on volunteers, right?

It will also have a clause explaining how the board can't just decide that press-release-writing (or whatever) is now de-skilled and will be handled by volunteers, firing the paid staff. Contracts can be changed; if something that is very skilled and time-consuming today is very easy and quick in ten years due to automation, the contract can be changed to reflect that.

Lurking in your question I sense perhaps the idea "what if the volunteers are forced into the union/the organization is forced to hire the volunteers".

A factor in the writing of the contract will be - especially since this is a nonprofit - the budget of the organization. Your organization cannot function without volunteers; your organization does not (I assume) have anywhere near the budget to provide any pay to the volunteers. The union is not interested - trust me, I have been around 3 separate nonprofit union drives - in bankrupting the organization.

Actually, I used to shop at a co-op that was union and had volunteers. I don't know what their contract looked like, but it was perfectly possible.

One thing I've seen again and again in union/nonprofit situations: both the board and the volunteers get it into their heads that it is moral to do the work for free or for very little, and that it is moral to work under bad conditions at irregular hours, etc - and they have an idea, conscious or unconscious, that the union is bad or selfish for wanting decent pay and working conditions. As a result, the board and the volunteers often frame this as 'selfish union members want money while generous, altruistic volunteers work for free because they care about the mission'. This is bad framing - leaving aside the union aspect, consider the incredibly, insanely high burn-out rate in activist circles. This burn-out rate happens because again and again we all decide that we should do lots of stressful volunteer hours because The Mission Is So Important That Our Wellbeing Is Trivial And What Are We, Capitalist Pigs Wanting A Forty-Hour Week? And then we wonder why very, very few people sustain heavy activist and volunteer involvement over many years.
posted by Frowner at 11:28 AM on April 26, 2013 [10 favorites]

Yes, a non-profit staff can unionize, and that shouldn't in any way change volunteer status or responsibilities. The org probably already has volunteer guidelines in place that delineate staff vs volunteer functions, expectations, etc. The union contract will only apply to the eligible staff. I used to work for a unionized non-profit with a large volunteer base, and this wasn't an issue. The union organizers should be able to explain all of this (and if they can't, they need to step up, because it's a reasonable question.)
posted by gingerbeer at 12:56 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

A while back I worked at a nonprofit organization where there was a union and also many volunteers, including a handful of full time volunteers who performed the same type and amount of work as the paid employees. The volunteers were not eligible to join the union. It worked out fine, I didn't see any problems.
posted by steinwald at 8:27 PM on April 26, 2013

Frowner outlines it really well. There is no problem having volunteers in a unionized workplace. In fact, it can get even more complicated; for a couple years I worked at a non-profit on a work-study and was not unionized, was paid by an outside organization. There were three staff who were unionized and dozens and dozens of volunteers. And I know a lot of unionized non-profits have unpaid interns, too.

The collective agreement will try to strike a balance between the workers' rights and the employer's needs. To answer your direct question, the status of volunteers need not change.
posted by looli at 8:43 PM on April 26, 2013

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