Date of Degree

9-2019

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

M.A.

Program

Liberal Studies

Advisor

John Krinsky

Subject Categories

Sociology | Urban Studies and Planning | Work, Economy and Organizations

Keywords

Nonprofits, New York City, Labor Unions, Social Services, Social Advocacy, Labor Practices

Abstract

Over the past century, the nonprofit sector’s size, scope, and function have undergone a series of drastic transformations. Federal expansion of social service programs in the 1960s gave rise to a mass expansion of federal funding for social services and advocacy-based nonprofit organizations. However, almost as soon as revenue streams increased, a new era of federal retrenchment ushered in major cuts to social spending. Thinning revenue streams pushed governments to utilize cheap subcontracting for social services, leading nonprofit employment to surge as non-unionized nonprofit workers stood in for their public-sector antecedents. Today, nonprofit workers continue to carry out the lion’s share of the nation’s social service and political advocacy work, but many do so without the critical protections of a workplace labor union. While union density rates continue to decline across the United States, a recent surge of labor activism within the educational and digital media sectors suggests a potential moment of renewal for the labor movement, especially with regard to previously under-organized professional workers. Nonetheless, nonprofit workers have not yet become a central focus of the American labor movement. In New York City, America’s leading union town, progressive nonprofits paradoxically employ substandard labor practices while simultaneously espousing progressive and justice-centered mission statements. This study takes up the ‘nonprofit labor paradox’ in the contemporary moment by way of exploring nonprofit workers’ opinions on, and experiences with, workplace conditions and worker-led organizing. Through a series of in-depth interviews with frontline nonprofit workers, this study highlights the prevalence of substandard workplace conditions within New York City’s nonprofit sector, focusing on: overtime work, substandard benefits and pay, and organizational hierarchies. The study demonstrates that nonprofit workers construct increasingly antagonistic, collectively positioned workplace identities that support pro-union opinions as well as experimentation with union drives. Additionally, the findings suggest that the symbolic power of ‘altruism’ is waning within New York City’s nonprofit sector. Rather than viewing their labor as an act of selfless service, many nonprofit workers perceive their work as highly valuable and deserving of dignity.

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