Workers & Nonprofits: Addressing Inequity Together
YNPN Hawai'i member Paola Rodelas tells us about three labor issues nonprofit professionals should have on their radar and what they can do to advance labor rights and equality.
Few people know that labor unions are nonprofit organizations; they’re classified as 501(c)(5) organizations. Yet I get mostly quizzical looks when I tell my fellow young nonprofit professionals that I work for a labor union.
Some people have negative responses. Some say they had a union job once. Someone even asked me once if I’m a thug. But most of the time, people are clueless about what a labor union even is.
If you work in the nonprofit sector, chances are you directly or indirectly deal with labor issues. Considering how many nonprofit professionals work in social services and healthcare, I’m sure many of you care about important issues that affect underserved and underrepresented communities. I too worked for 501(c)(3) nonprofits because I was very passionate about social and political issues and creating real change.
Last year, I left a healthcare organization to work at UNITE HERE Local 5, a labor union in Hawai’i that represents hospitality and healthcare workers. I decided to work for Local 5 because this union understands that community issues are workers’ issues, and that workers’ issues are community issues.
To build a larger social and political movement made up of union members and non-members, my union and other community organizations formed the AiKea Movement. Since our launch in 2012, we’ve been tackling issues such as responsible development, marriage equality, immigration reform, environmental concerns, and more. Many of our key leaders are nonprofit organizations or employees.
Union member and non-member issues are not and should not be separate issues. Rather, we should unite together to fight the same beast of economic and social inequality. Here is a brief look at some of these important issues and why they aren’t exclusively workplace issues or exclusively community issues:
1. Living Wage
Labor unions have been fighting for a living wage since their inception, and the fight continues. Had the federal minimum wage kept up with inflation over the past 40 years, it would be $10.86 an hour today. About 3.8 million workers are paid wages at or below the federal minimum wage.
After graduating from college in 2010, I struggled to find a nonprofit job (or any job, really) and worked minimum wage retail and hospitality jobs for a year until I landed my first full-time job. I personally understand what it means to (barely) survive on minimum wage, and I’m sure many of you out there can relate.
My union has been fortunate to work with several nonprofit organizations advocating for raising minimum wage. We worked with faith-based groups, LGBTQ organizations, public policy advocates, etc. As a result, Hawaii’s minimum wage was just raised from $7.25/hour to $10.10/hour last week.
But we made it very clear that this is an issue that affects not just minimum wage workers, but the entire community. Local 5 workers make well above minimum wage. But when some workers struggle, we all struggle. We created an infographic on bank tellers’ low pay, highlighting how much they depend on government assistance as a result. Meanwhile, banks are cashing in billions in profits. Good jobs here means money spent here, taxes paid here, a better life here.
2. Benefits, Job Security, & other factors that make good jobs good
We have labor unions to thank for weekends, holiday pay, ending child labor, and more. But there is still much work to be done.
Discussions about living wage often stop there and neglect the other facets of a good job: full family medical coverage, paid sick days, guaranteed pensions, job security. There are also numerous other workplace challenges that workers face, such as the negative impacts of subcontracting, the rise in non-union temp and part-time work, and the decline in union membership nationwide.
But again, these are issues that affect our entire community and not employees. We’re currently combatting the issue of our hotel rooms being converted into luxury condos and timeshares, which cuts thousands of good jobs. Because of these lost jobs, we calculated that over $30 million each year has been lost in state and Honolulu city tax revenue. That’s money that could have been used for our schools, our roads, and more. Everyone loses out, not just hotel workers.
3. Community Issues
Workers are people; they have lives outside of the workplace. They face a myriad of issues that affect them in and out of the workplace. And with the decline in union membership across the country, it’s more important than ever for unions to support workers who are not members.
It is no secret that the U.S. is becoming increasingly diverse, and the working class especially reflects this. Immigrants account for more than 16% of the civilian labor force. Unsurprisingly, many labor unions have been actively supporting immigration reform.
Some labor unions have also been advocating for LGBTQ rights. My union and many others in Hawai’i supported marriage equality, which was signed into law last fall. Recently, UNITE HERE Local 11 organized celebrities and LGBTQ rights activists to boycott the Beverly Hills Hotel because it is owned by the nation of Brunei, where homosexuality is punishable by death by stoning.
What can nonprofits do?
- Understand that nonprofit employees are working people. Even if you are not a member of a union, you are still a working person who may be facing the same types of workplace issues. You may also be working for a nonprofit that is fighting the same inequities that unions are. We must work together not just in coalitions, but as a cohesive movement.
Join us on the front lines, and also let us know about your campaigns. More voices and more boots on the ground are needed to create real change. Just a few ideas:
- Join us at our rallies
- Appeal to elected officials and other decision makers.
- Write letters to the editor.
- Stay updated on local and national labor issues and disputes. I used to work in nonprofit development and was surprised that many don’t check if the venues they are booking for events are under boycott. Recently, the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) in Seattle moved their gala from the boycotted Hyatt Olive 8 hotel to honor the boycott.
- Last but not least, pay your employees a living wage and benefits. Don’t contribute to the growing inequity nationwide and worldwide. Reflect on how your organization is treating its own employees and volunteers.
Immigration reform, marriage equality, environmental justice, you name it—these community issues are all workers’ issues. And workplace issues like living wage and worker benefits are all community issues. Community support is integral to combating workplace issues and improving the lives of working people. And the support of working people is necessary to fix community issues.
This is how we address inequity together.
Paola Rodelas is a Communications Specialist at UNITE HERE Local 5, a labor union representing nearly 10,000 hospitality and healthcare workers in Hawaii. She has been a YNPN member since 2012 and was involved with YNPN San Diego's fundraising committee. After moving to Hawaii in 2013, she co-founded YNPN Hawaii. Prior to her work at Local 5, Paola worked at UC San Diego Health Sciences Development and was an active volunteer at the Pacific Arts Movement (formerly the San Diego Asian Film Foundation). She studied Ethnic Studies and Art History at UC San Diego, where she also attained her professional certification in Fundraising and Development.
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