September 5, 2021

Reflections on Labor Day with Larry Williams, Jr. of UnionBase

This Labor Day, NFG’s Director of the Funders for a Just Economy program, Manisha Vaze, met with Larry Williams, Jr., Cofounder of UnionBase, and formerly a Labor and Just Transition Coordinator at the Sierra Club and President of the Progressive Workers Union. In this interview, Manisha and Larry talked about Larry’s work and his vision for the labor movement and for building worker power.  


 
Can you start off by sharing the story of why you started UnionBase? What is the central issue you are hoping to address with Unionbase?

UnionBase is a company and tech platform focused on improving the labor movement and accelerating it’s growth. We’ve been around since 2015 and started as a search engine for unions. Based on user feedback we pivoted to becoming a communication and education platform, building the tools workers need to build power in their workplace. As we started supporting workers we realized there is a serious need for educational content on how to organize and build power in the workplace. As a result we started a magazine that now serves union locals around the United States and Canada, as well as relationships with some of America’s largest unions. 

We see our mission as not only helping people join unions but also helping unions to become better partners to the communities where they work and their members live. We’re also trying to educate people about the history of work, the future of work, and our shared responsibility in directing that future. I want to share how we can make our community and our lives better by organizing our workplaces. 

It feels like there’s a resurgence of energy around worker organizing, collective bargaining, and the labor movement. What are some issues that come up as we garner more support for the labor movement?

I want to share how we can make our community and our lives better by organizing our workplaces. 

The organized labor movement can be hard to understand but is key to empowering communities, workers, and fighting climate change. For labor to continue to grow and evolve into a more diverse and powerful movement it needs to start looking outward and engaging young people. It is more likely now than anytime before that young people do not know about the history of the labor movement and its achievements. 

Though they may come from a working class family, young people may not relate to the traditional message of pride in being a worker or even identify as a “worker”.  As some employers are having trouble finding people to do in-person jobs because of COVID-19, young people are saying, “Why would I want to be a waitress or work in an office and risk my life to make a very low wage when I can work for myself?” 

Simultaneously, some young people are excited like never before to build power for themselves and their community starting in the workplace and we see that in the increasing number of organizing campaigns happening across the United States.

Can you talk more about the experience of organizing your own workplace? What did you learn and what were some challenges?

I had the blessing of experiencing first hand what can happen when workers build for a better future but forming a union. I was the first President of Progressive Workers Union (PWU), a decentralized, independent union that was started by workers employed at the Sierra Club. PWU’s organizing efforts captured the imagination of many nonprofits workers around the country when we won what has become the model for how to represent staff who work at nonprofits. 

There are many notable victories in the contract that make Sierra Club a better organization and allowed for a much better relationship between all staff and the organization’s leadership. The first contract includes many important improvements but a few worth naming are Compensatory Time, Family Sustaining Wages and improved Paid Family Leave.

Also, the entire organization now does a yearly pay review which allows the union to ensure that there is parity amongst staff across the organization and its affiliates. Every year, the union compares salary with the MIT wage scale. Through this analysis, pay inequality impacting women and people of color can be addressed. This was a unique solution we were able to negotiate through the union contract and was a victory for both the employer and employees.

What are the benefits for major organizations when they have a unionized workforce?

In all of the places where the organization was falling down the union was stepping up to support these workers.

There are several ways that unionized workers create more value for the organizations where they work. Most people think unions only care about wages. While fair pay is important, what people don’t realize is the respect that union workers have for the work that they do. Workers in a union are more secure in their jobs and produce better work. One thing that is core to why PWU works is that most workers come to nonprofit organizations as young people hoping to change the world. Nonprofits have an unintended habit of exploiting young workers until they burn out, then replacing them with another young person. In PWU all of the unit representatives, bargaining teams, and union leadership saw a vision for changing this paradigm, and believed that forming a union was the place to achieve a vision of changing this reality and we did it. For example, recently the Intercept wrote about how the Sierra Club’s Executive Director, Micheal Brune, was stepping down. All throughout that media’s reporting, and in the internal report, you can see how many ways the union took on sexual assault cases. In all of the places where the organization was falling down the union was stepping up to support these workers. 

Over the past several years and throughout this pandemic, workers have been in motion – striking and demanding better wages, health protections, working conditions and benefits in solidarity with the larger community. These campaigns have also been connecting worker justice to other social movements, like the movements to divest from policing and ICE, climate justice, and disaster recovery and relief. What do you think about these new unionization and collective bargaining efforts and what are the opportunities you see for the labor movement overall?

This is a make it or break it moment. While there is infinite opportunity for labor, success in the future is by no means guaranteed.

This moment has the potential to be a new golden age for labor and we’ve been preparing for it for the last ten years. Even prior to the pandemic, the working conditions of millions of Americans were revealed to be unbearable, and their income, which has stagnated in the face of skyrocketing living costs, is unsustainable. The pandemic has shined an even brighter light on this issue as many frontline workers lauded as heroes have been, in reality, treated as disposable. Without the protections and voice that comes with being in a union, frontline workers have been incapable of getting the hazard pay, protections, and living wages they have more than earned. Also, the labor movement has struggled to address issues of police brutality within its own membership. This is a make it or break it moment. While there is infinite opportunity for labor, success in the future is by no means guaranteed. The only answer is that people from underrepresented and impacted communities must be supported as legitimate leadership of unions. That means not just being in the room but making sure they are leading the decision making process. 

You mentioned that we’re in a make it or break it moment. What do you see as the best path forward? How might funders be supportive?

Funders should look for the people who are building relationships and doing organizing work, who have success doing it, and then figure out what is the quickest path to get the money to them with reasonable accountability but maintaining the least amount of control possible. Then they will see what their investment can do a lot better than if they request endless reports that may not reflect the value of the work being done. The people who are doing the work often have a difficult time connecting with funding opportunities despite their record of success.

I recognize the challenge for funders: they have a lot of rules and organizational things [to consider]. But, I think that there needs to be a more light weight process for making the connection between the people who need the money and the people who have the money.

Cover of Workplace Leader, a magazine for workers by UnionBase.

Also, funders should be setting an expectation that employers follow labor law and normalize unionization. Funders can take an active role in supporting workers by setting standards for their major funding recipients. For example, funders can use the MIT family sustaining wage calculator and other normative standards that help employers and workers find agreement. That way we're all on the same side and able to seek labor peace. It's about smarter decision making, engaging employers, the employees, and funders in productive conversations.

What’s next or upcoming for you and UnionBase?

UnionBase is scaling up to continue helping workers transform themselves for a new era of work. Meanwhile, we will continue to push the organized labor movement to expand outside of its comfort zone. Many workers are asking themselves, “How do you start and run a union with values centered around justice and equity?” UnionBase will be engaging in conversations with interested unions and funders to directly support the education of workers who want to organize traditional, independent and decentralized unions. 

Thank you so much, Larry! I'm really excited to see how UnionBase will continue to bloom.

 
More resources to learn about UnionBase:
January 13, 2022

Saying ‘no’ and rest as resistance: NFG's December 2021 Newsletter

At the beginning of this month, Neighborhood Funders Group hosted our final Member Connection Call of 2021. These calls are informal virtual spaces for grantmakers to truly connect and co-conspire; if you haven't joined one yet, we hope that you will in 2022 — register here for our next call on January 26!

On this year's Member Connection Calls, we've talked about how we're infusing care into our organizations and grantmaking, racial capitalism, racial justice organizing in specific places (and how philanthropy must move more + more + more money to BIPOC and low-income communities), rapid response funding, and lessons revealed to us by the pandemic on how to be better grantmakers and liberate all philanthropic assets.

We've shared the things that never fail to bring us comfort, offered tips for harnessing joy in all of the seasons, and taken each other on trips through our memories to our favorite vacation spots.

After co-hosting Member Connection Calls with NFG's President, Adriana Rocha, for well over a year, I've found that something that someone shares at each call resonates deeply for me. On this December call, it was:

'No' creates space to be a whole person at and outside of work.

It feels fitting to me to be putting the finishing touches on this message to you on NFG's final workday of the year. Beginning tomorrow (December 15), NFG will be closed for a three-week paid administrative break. We're saying 'no' to more meetings, more emails, and more work in favor of pausing, stopping, and creating the space to rest. Because we know from Tricia Hersey at The Nap Ministry that REST IS RESISTANCE.

The NFG team will return to our respective home offices on Wednesday, January 5. Here's a sneak peek into NFG's 2022: we'll be sharing our new theory of change, updating our website and brand, and announcing plans for our 2022 National Convening. And we'll continue sharing how we're centering our culture of care in our efforts to shift power in philanthropy towards justice and liberation.

Truthfully, I don't expect us to feel fully rested when we return — if 'feeling fully rested' is even a possibility in a capitalist world that values grind culture and all too often uplifts white supremacy culture characteristics of perfectionism, urgency, and quantity vs. quality. But I do know that this team-wide break moves us closer to a vision where all of our communities thrive in a liberated world where we are all well, where we are all cared for, and where there is abundance for all —and NFG is invested in this vision.

We look forward to co-conspiring with you to move money to racial, gender, economic, and climate justice in 2022. And we hope that you too say 'no' to what you need to and rest in any & every way that you're able.

Cheers!
Courtney Banayad
she/her
Director of Membership and Communications

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January 12, 2022

2022 Discount Foundation Legacy Award: Call for Nominations

The nominations are now open for the 2022 Discount Foundation Legacy Award!

The Discount Foundation Legacy Award annually identifies, supports, and celebrates an individual who has demonstrated outstanding leadership and contributed significantly to workers’ rights movements in the United States and/or globally. Through public recognition and a $20,000 stipend, we hope to recognize and amplify the work of individuals at the intersections leading the way toward justice for low-wage workers of color. This is a one of a kind opportunity to recognize the often unheard voices of worker movements — that includes volunteers, members, workplace leaders, and more who are transforming the lives and rights of their fellow low-wage workers of color.

To be eligible for the Award, a nominee must be active in worker justice, including but not limited to organizing and advocacy-related work. Additionally, nominees do not have to be employed at an organization or institution whose mission is to advance worker justice — they can be volunteers, members or other leaders at an organization or workplace organizing effort. We will not be asking questions regarding immigration or other legal status, and nominees do not have to reside in the US.

Nominees need to be nominated by someone other than themselves, through a simple, quick and accessible application process found here. The Award is meant only for individuals. Organizations, groups of individuals or institutions are not eligible for consideration. If you know anyone who you think should be recognized for their significant commitment to worker justice at any level — from a workplace to the neighborhood to the nation — this is your chance to provide them a powerful boost and real resources they can use in whatever way they choose! 

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In addition to being publicly recognized for their remarkable contributions to the movement, the 2022 Discount Foundation Legacy Award winner will receive a $20,000 stipend to provide them with the flexibility to expand upon their professional activities and achievements They will not be asked for any reporting requirements, and the funding has no specific strings attached or other specific obligations. The winner of the 2022 Discount Foundation Legacy Award will be invited to be honored at a virtual event in 2022. To learn more about the eligibility requirements and nomination process, please see our FAQs here — and please spread the word about this opportunity to your networks, colleagues and friends!

All nominations must be received by 11:59pm ET on March 7, 2022 through the online nomination form. We’re happy to help answer questions about the award, or support with any trouble you have with the application — please reach out to emily@jwj.org.

Created in partnership with Jobs With Justice Education Fund and the Neighborhood Funders Group’s Funders for a Just Economy, the Discount Foundation Legacy Award was launched in 2015 to commemorate and carry on the legacy of the Foundation’s decades-long history of supporting leading edge organizing in the worker justice arena beyond its spend down as a foundation in 2014. Learn more about the Discount Foundation Legacy Award.
 

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