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Charity Workers, Organize!

A guide for the overworked and underappreciated

If you work in a charity, chances are you are not in a union. Which is unfortunate, because you will almost certainly have seen things a union can fix: low morale, poor conditions and pay, infringements of labor rights, discrimination, poor or malicious management, and work-related illness.

This is a guide to help you start to organize yourself and your colleagues so your voices can be heard and you can make effective changes to the place you work. It assumes nothing about the nature of the charity you work in and nothing about your place in it: all workers can contribute to building a just, effective workplace. It’s specifically geared towards people working in charities where the employer doesn’t already have a recognition agreement with a union.

You don’t have to be a lawyer to start a union, but you do need to know where to get quality, independent advice. In the UK, places like ACAS and in the U.S. the AFL-CIO have great advice: if you live somewhere with employment law, there will be somewhere you can go for support.

That’s about as technical as this guide will get. The legal side of things is better supported by people who know about the area you live in. Here we’ll focus on the theory and practice of organizing.

1. What does it mean to organize?

Workplaces basically fall into two categories; those with collective bargaining and those without. Collective bargaining means that decisions are reached by agreement between management and workers, whose collective stance is represented by the bargaining unit. There is a lot of research to suggest that collective bargaining is a practical benefit to any workplace.

The alternative to collective bargaining is what often happens in charities, where managers make decisions on their own terms without having to consult workers at all. Staffing changes, conditions, and disciplinary issues fall under their remit without any real oversight beyond what the law requires. Those decisions are then felt by workers who may have no way of feeding back to managers what their issues are. Anyone who has ever done a business studies course would point out that this isn’t an effective way to run an organization.

2. What is charitable work worth?

If you’re serious about organizing, you have to be dispassionate when you think about the systems you work within. The worth of our work is one of the big questions charitable workers avoid even thinking about: in the private sector your work can be seen in the profits it helps generate, and the public sector has the weight of the government behind it (though obviously neither are in perfect positions.)

Charitable workers’ work doesn’t really have any worth. It’s almost always inherently unprofitable (if you think social return on investment qualifies as profit, stop reading this and go back to sleep) and precarious: when was the last time you saw talk of a charitable workers’ strike, or of the government urging more money for public spending including the charitable sector?

This is a sober thought, but an important one: if you ask people to imagine a union, they will likely think of strike action, of boats built, and barricades erected, but in the charitable sector it’s different. Ask a banker what their work is worth and they’ll show you a balance sheet. Charitable workers need to find something similar.

We get a hint about our work is worth when people hear what we do and say, “Oh, that must be so rewarding.” Anyone who has worked in a charity knows that even on the front line of services it’s not consistently rewarding, but the image is there: your work matters because of how it makes people feel or the potential for change. So long as there’s a charity, there’s the chance that the rest of the world doesn’t really have to operate as it does – a rampantly profiteering factory of sadness, devoid of any human charm.

It’s important not to identify the worth of your work with the outcomes it has for people. That’s an easy trap to fall into. Instead we should talk about how we contribute to the life of a project that is supposed to help people in lots of ways. As part of that, think about how you might include volunteers and, if appropriate, service users as part of this – they also contribute. The manager-worker divide isn’t a helpful one, and organizing in charities should set the scene for better, more democratic decision-making.

3. How are charities organized internally?

Poorly. A combination of too little funding to do the work well, an inherently unstable sector caught between lower public funding and no funding at all, and the looming awareness that investment in the sector (where it exists) is based on baseless hope and potential, makes managers the rulers of the greatest sandcastle empires.

Naturally, it seems, some people have to work and others have to manage. Workers know that they are probably not funded to make substantive, sustainable impacts on the lives of the people they work with. Managers tend to identify their job as keeping the charity in existence, rather than thinking about what it actually does. Again, it’s more important that it exists and maintains the illusion of potential. If you wanted to actually help people, you wouldn’t manage in a charity, you would lead it.

That absence of leadership is born out of the untenable place charities inhabit, caught up in meaningless expectations of hope, which nobody cares to invest in. Charitable work is an absurdity in a world that expects profit. There’s no reason for anyone inside to really take their actions seriously. Of course there are workers who do, and whose efforts and effects are completely outside of what could fairly be expected, just as there are managers who care. But again, we’re talking about systems here — not individual people — and you probably have noticed already that the culture of charities is as conducive to work as the culture of a bank is to social responsibility.

4. What possible value could organizing have in a situation like this?

If you’ve read this so far, or at all, the above assessment of the charitable sector won’t have come as a total surprise. It might be viscerally unsettling, but it probably chimes with something you’ve realised already in your work: nobody really cares how it goes and it’s incredibly hard to do what you go to work for, which is help people. Organizing with colleagues lets you pool this awareness and weaponize it.

Know your reasons for organizing, and how they might connect to managerial incompetence. Then ask how they might relate to that imbalance between the internal and external expectations on your charity.

Is the mood in your workplace being dictated by managers’ concerns over funding? Permanent contracts becoming temporary contracts becoming volunteer opportunities? You can relate these to other people’s fears about their work and its place in the world. So much of working in a charity is distancing yourself from consciously understanding the awfulness of seeing an endless stream of human tragedies and being unable to help most of them because even though you got into this to help people, that’s not what the charity is for. It’s a front for a caring impulse people are expected to shun under capitalism.

Organizing yourself and your colleagues isn’t going to change that, but it lets us counter the narrative above, where managers think it’s their job to keep the charity afloat and workers think it’s their job to expend themselves in situations they know to be hopeless. Management often takes a paternalistic role then, as guardians of hope and makers of real-world decisions. Instead, through organization, workers might realize they could take control of things they haven’t before, perhaps by becoming involved in funding or collaborating with other charities or — whisper it — direct action.

5. How do I start to organize?

Carefully. In workplaces without collective bargaining, a manager’s response to organization can be deeply negative and there are often few legal safeguards for workers. This isn’t to panic you, but you need to be thoughtful about how you go about this — a passionate and courageous leader is wasted if they’re fired before they get a chance to build a movement.

First talk to people you can trust. A trustworthy person isn’t necessarily a friend; it should be someone you know understands a problem in the workplace. Sound them out about that issue, and don’t mention organizing or unions or collective bargaining at this point. Let them talk, and listen — in places as overworked as charities there will always be different opinions. If you’re the instigator of an organised movement this is an opportunity to hear your colleagues out — they should know that this is about shared issues, not your politics. Ask them if they’ve heard anything else about the issue at hand, then go and talk to other colleagues.

Hopefully by now you know of at least one other person, and possibly several, who have an awareness of the problem. Ask if they’re in a union or have been, or if they know of a history in the organization. You shouldn’t find yourself advocating for anything at this stage — if people are receptive, you’ll know it and that’s all you need right now.

Get a group together and meet informally, outside of work if possible, where you won’t be disturbed. Keep it to people you can trust not to speak to managers or other colleagues about it. Make sure people understand that this isn’t secrecy but tactics; you don’t want to risk a negative reaction to something that doesn’t exist yet.

6. What should this initial group do?

Once you know that there is a group of people who are interested in addressing something you can describe as a systemic issue, you need to know how it’s systemic. At the meeting ask people for issues they are concerned about; pay, childcare, workplace policies, business plans, management and equalities issues are all things that might come up. Think of this as brainstorming. You’re not coming up with demands at this stage. Let people generate ideas they can connect in their own minds. Make sure any notes are distributed outside of work communication (i.e., using personal emails) to those who attend the meeting.

At this stage everyone in this group should join an established trade union or seek the advice of a group that can help you incorporate as one — discuss which you think would be best. Ideally you would all join the same union so as to minimise organizational difficulties down the line. A trade union in your area will be able to support you if you contact them ahead of the meeting — you can even ask what support they would offer at this stage and see if they have any advice. When you join a trade union you have the benefit of legal advice and support if you need it, and it’s a clear statement of intent that you will not be proceeding in the way the charity has until now.

7. How do I manage my colleagues?

You don’t. Which isn’t to say there won’t be things you wish were manageable. Organizing efforts inevitably upset the balance of a workplace, and people can have deep personal attachments to the unfairness they deal with every day. In charities people’s alienation from their work can easily be redirected against people who suggest working together. There can also be the problem of experienced members of staff with standing in the organisation who have experienced injustices — the idea that they might have been remedied earlier can sit uneasily with people. While you might be minded to think of these as problems, focus your energy on building an inclusive, democratic collective. It’s tempting to adopt familiar approaches from managers: silence, isolating troublemakers, threats even. Don’t fall into the trap.

Ask yourself if your instinct is something a manager might do; if it is, you want to keep thinking. You’re collectively building a different approach to work, and hard thinking now will pay dividends down the line. There would be nothing worse than organizing in a way that institutionalized the attitudes and practices that provoked the organization in the first place, though it’s easily done.

8. So we have a group of employees in a union. Now what?

Now you take this to colleagues. Explain that a group of people, unified by their recognition of a particular issue, got together to discuss what could be done about it. You sought a practical response, and you think you have found one. As a group of peers and colleagues you believe there’s a way to address that as workers. Approach people personally, with a short written explanation (less than a page) explaining, calmly, the issue(s) you’ve been looking at as a group and why you think this is the best course.

Everyone should be welcome, but you should also look as a group and try to identify areas of underrepresentation: if your initial meetings are male-dominated or monochrome, you will find that harder to adjust as you go on, so reach out to colleagues whose issues are likely to be compounded by characteristic, as much as charitable, circumstance. Your union’s strength will come from its connection to workers’ experience. Again, don’t adopt a manager’s outlook and minimize opinion you aren’t sure you can constructively use: work with colleagues to hear issues and incorporate them into your shared platform.

You’ll have to approach management about your intention to seek collective bargaining. Doing so will mean a tough conversation. It might come as a surprise to managers or they might have seen it coming. The likelihood is that it won’t be met with overwhelming positivity — reactions might not be over in an instant, either: managers have been known to melt down in the face of realising that their positions are precarious and the things they have done are unjustifiable. This is their angst, and while your union should be civil it should also be as forthright as it is forgiving. Some people had a disproportionate hand in shaping the situation which brought harm to people; it’s up to you all to meet on good terms and decide if that’s the way you want to keep things.

Simon Jones is a journalist and (occasional) educational practitioner based in Glasgow, Scotland.

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