Beyond the martyr complex: confessions of a “pink collar” militant

Dave Stannton's account of his experiences as a “pink collar” militant working at an immigrant-serving non-profit organized by a large public-sector union in Northern Alberta.

Submitted by Recomposition on March 7, 2013

This article is an account of my experiences as a “pink collar” militant working at an immigrant-serving non-profit organization (NPO)1 organized by a large public-sector union in Northern Alberta. We successfully resisted attacks on wages, pensions, and benefits in our most recent round of collective bargaining in large part because we employed the A-E-I-O-U (Agitate-Educate-Inoculate-Organize-Unionize) model of organizing pioneered by the IWW.

Without diving too much into polemics, some basic thoughts on the NPO sector are worth mentioning here. In many ways, working in a client-centred, NPO presents a unique challenge to those of us who adhere to a more militant anti-capitalist ideology. On the one hand, workers in this industry are able to earn a living by selling their labour to an organization that prioritizes serving disadvantaged people over making money for shareholders (a very powerful incentive to entering this line of work in the first place). On the other hand however, these same organizations are totally reliant on funding from either the state or well-heeled private donors, and as such, are extremely reluctant to “bite the hand that feeds them” by pursuing a more radical social/economic agenda.2

In addition, the internal structure of the typical NPO is not one that is markedly different from a capitalist or state enterprise. NPO’s are usually organized along hierarchic lines with a specific division of labour, and are headed by an Executive Director (who is in turn accountable to an all-volunteer Board of Directors that acts as the ultimate power brokers within the agency).

Client-focused NPO’s also place a much greater emphasis on working “collaboratively” to make sure that responsibilities are met in the most “cost-effective” manner possible. This means that workers are routinely expected to do tasks that fall outside of their job descriptions and regular hours of work, and that they do so without upsetting the “team dynamic” in the workplace (working themselves to the point of burnout in the process). While this is a reality for far too many workers in this industry, it need not be so. In fact, many of the organizing tactics that have worked in other industries over the years can be just as effective at building power on the shop floor at a NPO.

Background to the Campaign

I work as a Program Coordinator a client-centred NPO that helps immigrants and refugees successfully transition to life in our northern outpost. The staff work with people from dozens of countries on a weekly basis, and help out with more mundane tasks (such as filling out forms needed to access government assistance), providing counselling and translation services, and acting as advocates for clients dealing with unscrupulous landlords, horrible bosses, family violence issues, federal immigration agents, etc.

Though small (there are slightly more than two-dozen staff members in total), this workplace is very diverse. Three-dozen different languages can be spoken in the office, and the vast majority of the workers are immigrants themselves (representing five different continents). Most are female and it is a slightly older workforce, with the majority of the workers being between the ages of thirty and fifty.

This particular NPO is fairly horizontally-organized, with the Executive Director (ED), being the sole person in charge of hiring and firing (though she herself can be fired by the Board of Directors, should they choose to do so). Other positions in the office are divided along the lines of Counsellors, Program Coordinators, and Administration Personnel, and it is worth noting that the ED is by all accounts a very reasonable person to work for. She generally leaves the workers to go about their business as they see fit and does not meddle in their daily routines unless she feels it is absolutely necessary to do so. The shop itself has been organized by a large public-sector trade union for the better part of the past two decades, and overall, has enjoyed good relations with Management (who have strangely stressed union membership as part of their “sales pitch” to prospective employees).

The Workplace Heats Up

The organization receives almost all of its funding from government, and for the past couple of years there have been rumblings of changes to the organization’s funding model. Workers were warned that funders were pushing the agency to “cut costs”, implying that Management was going to try to get that extra money from workers.

Despite being a unionized workplace, the union’s presence on the shop floor was negligible. The agency had doubled in size in the two years since I was hired, and it was clear that the status quo of having the longest serving worker “in charge” of the union’s chapter was not going to work anymore. In many of the one-to-one’s I had with my colleagues (formally as a Union Steward and informally), it was clear that the shop floor was heating up. People were getting agitated by the prospect of taking home less pay, and were concerned about how they were going to make ends meet in the future if cuts were going to be made (especially since many already worked a second job). Several indicated that they wanted to stay with the agency, but were not sure if they could afford to do so anymore. In those early meetings, the possibility of engaging in job actions was discussed, and it was interesting to see that this was not something dismissed out of hand.

As such, when the time came to elect a new Bargaining Team, there was a renewed interest in developing a strong union presence at the worksite. The vast majority of the workforce attended the meeting, and for the first time in many years, there was enough interest to have an actual election (instead of the usual acclimations). A sudden resignation from one of the Bargaining Team members two months after the elections resulted in me officially joining the team, though at this point, resentment towards the union was building, as there was no contact from the union in the two months after the election.

After (eventually) meeting with the union’s paid Negotiator, the results of a survey previously e-mailed to all workers was discussed at a series of meetings organized by the Bargaining Team. To no one’s surprise, wages, pensions, and benefits were the top three concerns, and a resolution was passed empowering the Bargaining Team to accept no less than the status quo for the next agreement (a two-year deal with a modest pay increase in each year, and the status quo on pensions and benefits). The only way out was if Management offered unfettered access to the agency’s books to prove that they could not afford this deal (which is something we did not consider likely to happen).

Using the physical and social maps constructed in the months preceding the election, we were able to reach out to every single worker and ensure that they attended at least one meeting at the start of the campaign. The impact of these meetings on the campaign cannot be overstated, as from the very beginning, everyone on the shop floor was made to feel like their input mattered and would be used to determine the direction of the campaign.

For its part, Management seemed intent on using the turnover on the Bargaining Team to solidify a hard-line position. A negligible wage increase and a large cut to workplace benefits and pensions was demanded at the first (and only) face-to-face meeting with worker representatives (with an inability to pay being cited as the reason for the low-ball offer). Talks quickly broke down, and the session ended with no agreement in place and no future meetings scheduled.

The Workers Respond

As could be predicted, the workers were not amused with this. In meetings held with several different people, it was clear that people were angry and felt Management was treating them as though they were no different than the disposable office supplies they worked on. The accidental revelation of an internal e-mail between members of the Board of Directors that described the union in hostile terms and indicated that attacks on worker benefits had been “on the agenda” for years served to inflame the situation, and was widely seen as proof that Management had not been completely forthcoming in their dialogue with the union.

In response, workers began to openly discuss strategies for moving forward, which included talk of a strike. An informal strike committee (consisting of part-time and full-time staff who worked in the office and out in the community) was formed, and though dialogue on the committee didn’t progress beyond the point of agreeing in principle to coordinate future job actions, those involved were very interested in “upping the ante” if need be.

In addition, an appointment with a Mediator was arranged and the Bargaining Team drafted a communiqué that was placed on standby, signifying that the campaign was ready to go public. The rank-and-file were contacted by the Bargaining Team on a regular basis, and several small clusters of workers held their own informal and independent meetings over lunch and coffee breaks. The Bargaining Team received constant positive (and often public) reinforcement from the shop floor throughout the campaign, reinforcement that seemed to stiffen the resolve of the paid Negotiator (whose position shifted from one that was more conciliatory with Management to one that was openly confrontational).

At the same time, the agency experienced a large amount of turnover in a short period of time. Roughly one-quarter of its workforce resigned over the period of negotiations, many of whom were veteran staff members disgusted with Management’s position and deciding to move on. They were replaced by new workers in short order, and the Bargaining Team moved quickly to reach out to these new workers, bring them up to speed, and make sure that they were given every opportunity to become as part of the process as their predecessors were. These efforts were very well received, and the new workers very quickly became ardent supporters of the Bargaining Team and its efforts.

A (Temporary) Truce is Reached

It’s important to note that the ED was out of the country for much of this process, leaving the negotiations in the hands of the Board of Directors (who at most visited the office one per month to discuss “governance” issues). Upon her return, she clearly felt the tension in the air, and as such, quickly moved to orchestrate a better offer.

Management’s new offer was a one-year deal with a small pay raise (larger than the one initially offered, but smaller than the one workers sought), the status quo on benefits, and a one-time small reduction on pensions that would be restored in the next round of bargaining. Management did provide some proof of financial hardship, argued that they were negotiating with the funders, and was hoping to get more money for wages, pensions and benefits over the next three years. However, it would not be possible for us to get all that we wanted for a contract that lasted more than one year this time around.

After much deliberation, the Bargaining Team recommended that workers accept the offer (a compromise which was tantamount to a temporary ceasefire until the next round of bargaining). In a ratification meeting, more than 80% of the workers attended and cast a ballot, and the majority voted to accept the deal.

Lessons Learned

This latest round of bargaining (which concluded this past October) was the most difficult in the agency’s four-decade history. While the Bargaining Team successfully repelled most of Management’s attacks on its workforce, it did little else to advance the interests of the workers. It was an exhausting eight-month process that resulted in a twelve-month contract set to expire six months after it was ratified (taking into account six months of retroactive application).This process showed the limitations of using contracts to advance worker interests in the workplace (even in a “progressively-oriented” NPO).

However, that is not to say that there were no tangible benefits to workers as a result of this fight. People gained invaluable experience in the application of direct workplace democracy, revitalizing the union on the shop floor as a result. This campaign illustrated that it is possible for workers of all ages, genders, and cultural backgrounds to work together and advance their common interests as workers.

The A-E-I-O-U organizing model developed by the IWW was instrumental to this campaign; rather than relying on the “official channels” of the union to sort things out, agitated workers got together, learned about the current attacks on their well-being in the workplace, and subsequently organized and drew their own “lines in the sand.” This not only increased their willingness to take eventual direct action on the shop floor, but had the added impact of solidifying bonds between colleagues which were already strong (given how closely everyone worked with one another on a daily basis).

The Wobbly model also provided a powerful antidote to one of Management’s most potent rhetorical tools: the invocation of client well-being to discourage workers from mobilizing. The workers countered by arguing that a continued demand for workers to do more with less would have a negative effect on clients. Overworked and underpaid workers would be more likely to leave for other job opportunities on a regular basis, creating a revolving door of staff and reducing the quality of service delivered to clients in the process (as new workers need time to learn how to do their jobs properly) . Ensuring that workers were respected and able to provide for themselves and their families thus became a necessary precondition for an agency that seeks to provide newcomers to Canada with the settlement assistance they need.

Concluding Remarks

While it is true that working at a client-oriented NPO presents its own unique challenges, this workplace has illustrated that the tactics successfully employed by workers in other industries can be used effectively here. Attacks on wages, pensions, and benefits should not be tolerated simply because “pink-collar workers” often work with people less fortunate than themselves. If nothing else, the example from this NPO in one of the northerly outposts of North America illustrates that workers united can defend themselves better than they ever could alone, even in “progressive” work environments where workers come from very different personal backgrounds.

Originally posted: February 20, 2013 at Recomposition

  • 1NOTE: In much of the academic literature surrounding the non-profit industry, the terms NPO (non-profit organization) and NGO (non-governmental organization) are used interchangeably. Though there are subtle differences between the two, for the purposes of this article, the acronym NPO will be used
  • 2For more information, consult The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, edited by INCITE! Women of Colour Against Violence. Atlanta, Georgia. South End Press. 2007.