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Why Non-profits Can't Lead the 99%

Warren Mar has written a provocative piece on the role of Community Based Organizations and Worker Centers in the working class movement. He explores controversial issues of the funding and democratic control of these organizations which have filled a vacuum in organizing particularly among immigrant workers.

The author entered community and labor organizing in the late 60’s and early 70’s during the second resurgence of a left alternative to capitalism. Many new left activists entered the labor movement during this time, hoping that American Unions would finally represent the entire working class, and not only those workers under a specific work place contract.

Even at its peak in 1953 the AFL-CIO unions only represented 33% of American workers. This year coincided with continuing legal Jim Crow segregation in the South, excluding African Americans from unions, and years of Asian and Latino exclusion from unions on the West Coast. Therefore the 33% reflected on longingly by union old-timers may have represented a majority of white males concentrated in heavy industry and the skilled construction trades of the Midwest and Northeast. This was the geographic concentration of the majority of union members during the height of the AFL-CIO. Not until the late 60’s and early 70’s when public sector unions were formed and – and public sector civil service jobs were integrated – did large numbers of women and minorities become card-carrying AFL-CIO union members even in the most liberal of northern cities.

The above serves as a context to what we are seeing in liberal urban areas today. Unions, even those that survive, are too insignificant to have a large impact on organizing and popular culture. At 6% density in the private sector, most young workers have no chance of stepping into a union job, so the benefits of union membership is an ideological abstraction. In contrast, many baby boomers were able to step into private sector union jobs, fresh out of high school in the early 1970’s. My first union job allowed me to rent my own apartment, in San Francisco, by making five times the minimum wage. I also had a full medical plan, paid vacation and holidays off, something my immigrant parents never obtained in the era when they were excluded from most unions and specific industries. While I fought against the racism and cronyism of unions I never faltered in my support of them. Even in liberal San Francisco, the difference between a union job vs. a non-union job meant a real living wage. I learned to work union whenever I could right out of high school because it allowed me to pay the rent and later carry the mortgage on my first home in one of the most expensive cities in the United States.

What has stepped into the void with the demise of unions?

It would take another long article to discuss the demise of unions in this country and in particular urban areas. That is not the purpose of this article. Rather, I want to look at the rise of Community Based Organizations (CBO’s), all of whom are chartered as Non-Profit Organizations. They have stepped into the void left by unions as the main and sometimes only organizers of low wage immigrant workers. Some organize workers explicitly through the moniker of being a “workers center”. Many started by representing workers that traditional unions would not touch such as transient immigrant workers who moved from industry to industry or who lacked documentation. The day laborer programs come most readily to mind and they have sprouted up in all urban and agricultural areas where a concentration of Latino or Asian migrants seek casual work, without the benefit of documentation. Others have arisen to redress violations of local progressive workers ordinances such as increases in the minimum wage, paid sick days, private contributions to health care, etc. These progressive policies, usually enacted in left-leaning urban areas, came into being without any enforcement mechanism and when there were written regulations they were remanded to municipal departments woefully understaffed and often with a history of civil service staff lacking the bi-lingual or bi-cultural ability to serve immigrant workers, the most likely victims of non-compliance by intransigent employers.

How have CBO/Non-profits done in representing the most exploited among the working class?

Many progressives and leftists, who did not come from the working class, saw the importance of working in unions in the 60’s and 70’s. Many did so by taking jobs in factories, hospitals or in the service sector, after their tenure as campus activists came to an end. Campus activists who leaned towards socialism saw the need to become workers themselves, “integrating with the masses”, moving into inner city neighborhoods to work and live amongst the working class. They often sacrificed the earning potential of their college cohorts and the high hopes of their middle class parents. Ironically many of their middle class professional ambitions were fulfilled when they rapidly transitioned from the shop floor to positions of paid union staff and full time officials in the inner sanctums of the American labor movement. A number of the top leaders of the union affiliates which led the ascension of John Sweeney and Richard Trumka in the “New Voice Movement” taking over leadership of AFL-CIO in the mid 90’s had entered the union movement in the 70’s fresh out of college. The rapid rise of college educated radicals in the leadership of unions raised many contradictions for those who believed that the working class should and indeed could run their own organizations. This was especially true if one professed an adherence to socialism – where workers were supposedly able to run all of society. In practice, this meant the working class should be able to run their own union, if the goal was to give them power over an entire country.

But the inequalities of capitalism are not so easily overcome. In most of the first unions I was a member of in lower level service work — warehousing, garage work, retail, the phone-company, restaurant and hotel work — many of the workers who came directly from the rank and file spoke English as their second language. Some could not read and write English, many could read only at the primary school level in their native language, the result of class inequalities in their countries of origin. Others had never typed a letter and with the advent of computers they were the least acquainted with these new contraptions. So, while some unions conspired to hire college educated non-workers as a means of controlling their staff, who had no ties to the rank and file other than their staff positions, the harsher reality was that even for the most democratic unions the increasing bureaucratic legal codes and the increasing corporatization of Human Resource Departments in firms coinciding with the formal assault on unions in the 1980’s meant that the ability of rank and file members to rise in staff positions became limited by their formal education. It was easier for unions to have representatives with a college education sit across the table from their equally educated counterparts representing management. Whatever we want to think about working class democracy in a highly industrialized society such as the United States, most people learn how to read, write and compute by attending school. In post-industrial America attending better schools or a better university or college made a big difference.

California, which had the best public post-secondary education system in the United States in my adolescence, reflected the class tiers in the three public higher education systems represented in the Master Plan. Community colleges, started out as trade schools, where some licensed workers (nurses, real estate agents, and accountants) could get better working class jobs or transfer to a Baccalaureate institution. State Colleges (formerly referred to as teacher’s colleges) were the first rung on the professional ladder, emphasizing the training of school teachers, social workers and later middle management in the private sector. Finally the University of California system or their private counter parts like Stanford University trained the elite representatives of the ruling class in the sciences, law and business, including the children of the ruling class.

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Today, most professional union staff who do not originate from the shop floor and the core staff of non-profits come from these elite universities, not the first two tiers of community and state colleges. This has widened the contradictions among workers and the staff who purport to represent them. Historically progressive unions have had to deal with the racial divide as working class demographics changed the labor force to a significant number of women and people of color. Today’s non-profits have huge class divides between their staff and member/clients.

The problem is further exacerbated in the non-profit sector because at least in unions the staff and officers are financially accountable to the members. Unions after all are still membership organizations. Union members pay dues for officer and staff salaries. In theory, if not practice this meant that the membership is the highest decision making body and while there have been reams of articles and books written about how unions often try to subvert their membership by fixing elections, general meetings, conventions etc., the point is they still need to hold these gatherings. Sometimes, conventions, elections, and meetings don’t go as planned and radical changes may occur. This means that there is still some structure which allows for working members to wield power in a truly membership based organization. Unfortunately most non-profits today do not have the structural requirements most unions must adhere to. There is little in the way of by-laws governing non-profits, for membership election of leaders and oversite of executive directors and staff.

Many non-profits founded as mass based organizations no longer exist – The example of the Chinese Progressive Association

A mass based organization was the term coined in the 60’s when community based organizations were first formed, mostly in communities of color to fill a void where, most of their working class immigrant members lacked union representation. They also formed to deal with issues that unions considered off limits at the time, such as tenant protections when many communities of color where faced with bull dozers at the height of urban renewal, lack of public services in their communities, and lack of access to jobs both private and public which had the best chance of earning a living wage and moderate working conditions. As an example of this type of mass organization, the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), which formed in San Francisco in late 1973, existed without outside funding well into the 1980’s. It had a large membership base of several hundred, which was dues driven. But the main source of sustainability was the in-kind contributions of the active membership. There was no paid staff. Rent was paid through weekly Sunday dinners where members and non-members alike gathered and paid a few dollars for the meal. Other contributions came in for movie showings and annual celebrations. Regular storefront hours were kept by retired members who, also helped clean the premises, and performed a wide array of handy-man repairs. More important, all of the organizing campaigns were led through volunteer committees which included direct participation of the affected residents of Chinatown. Longstanding committees included a women’s committee, workers mutual aid committee, tenants committee, youth committee, pro-China support committee and cultural committee. I may have forgotten a few. The committees were led by chairpersons and represented on the steering committee, led by English and Chinese speaking co-chairs. We incorporated a Chinese speaking co-chair to guarantee immigrant representation.

Being membership driven in the early years meant that elections of co-chairs and steering committee members were at times contentious, as were decisions to support other nationalities and engage in support work outside the community. Even on international issues and pro-China work, the membership was often at odds, especially when China entered into a border dispute and war with Vietnam in the late 70’s. None of these issues could be dictated and decided by the leadership without many contentious meetings. In hindsight I think this was a fair price for being membership based. Throughout this period we remained critics of local government and shied away from government based funding.

In San Francisco many public sector unions and skilled private sector craft unions fought affirmative action hiring programs initiated by CBO’s at a time when the demographics and language needs of the city were changing, and the people of African American, Asian, and Latino’s were woefully under-represented in government jobs as we became the numerical majority in the city. Organizers realized that local government was the protector of the status quo and whatever discriminatory policy or services were allotted at the state and national levels usually fell on local government to implement. This was true of dishing out low rent housing, summer jobs for youth, government building contracts, etc. In San Francisco, as in many large urban cities, local government was also the largest employer. CBO’s who wanted a share of good civil service jobs knew local government was the historical arbiter of political cronyism and nepotism.

Post mass base CBO’s: From government challenger to government sub-contractor

During the 1980’s when unions were under major assault and public services started sliding into privatization, CBO’s that survived and thrived underwent two major changes. First they negated their membership base to the back burner, no longer relying on their financial or in-kind contributions, and second, became increasingly reliant on local government funding as the primary sustainer of their organization. The rest is supplanted by corporate donations or foundation grants. They may have a paper membership, but this membership is not empowered to have direct elections or financial oversight. In most non-profits you will be hard pressed to find a governing board that looks like their constituents/clients. Most non- profit boards are made up of professionals and often representatives of private corporations who are major donors. Second, there are few non-profits that are member supported financially with any significant dues base. This has transformed many grass roots CBO’s founded in the 60’s-70’s from local government critic and watchdog to local government sub-contractor.

Many CBO/Worker’s Centers receive the lion share of their funding from liberal foundations. Ironically they are enforcing worker’s rights through donations from the heirs of the wealthy. Today, local government contracts have replaced foundation grants as the largest source of funding for many CBO’s in liberal enclaves such as San Francisco. Workers Centers are the recipients of these contracts because local worker rights ordinances such as living wage ordinances, sick day ordinances and medical care contributions are relatively new local policy initiatives. But the lion’s share of non-profit funding comes not from protecting workers rights but from subsidizing housing for the poor, which has gone through decades of privatization. The majority of money granted to CBO’s originates from municipal government, through housing grants. Non-profit CBO’s receive huge grants to build housing but they have also been given grants as property managers on government owned property that was managed publicly in the past. Ironically in pro-tenant San Francisco, the majority of tenant rights have fallen on groups with direct funding from the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH). Sometimes the same group can serve as both landlord and tenant rights advocate, both sides funded by the Mayor’s office. There has been more than one local news article where non-profits have turned on their own tenants. In one of the most audacious examples a non-profit church tried to sell off its low rent housing to a private developer, who wanted to transform these low rent housing apartments to market rate units in rental hungry San Francisco. With government pulling out of its responsibility to serve the poor, non-profits have stepped in as a private sector alternative of choice. This is especially true of housing where, just last year Mayor Ed Lee in San Francisco turned over all formerly HUD federal housing to private non-profits.

Staff and Member Class Divide

Some unions put up barriers for non-rank and file staffers by creating rules against professional staff holding elected office. Some unions liked the separation of staff from rank and filers, because if they fired a college-educated staffer these outsiders could not return to the shop floor to foment dissent against a sitting officer.

The class divide among professional staffers in CBO’s, are even wider than they were inside unions who had staff from mixed backgrounds? Few if any of the non-profit staff and leadership reflect the class background of their member/clients. Today, we would be hard pressed to find an Executive Director of a non-profit, program or lead organizing staff without an elite college education. Even the contradiction of a wide class and educational divide between staff and membership felt by unions is not at play in non-profits, because they don’t have any pressure from an active membership. Most of their funding comes from foundations or now local government contracts. If they have a board of directors, it is usually a self-perpetuating board of like-minded professionals. Like corporate boards in the private sector many CBO/Non-Profit boards share members. There is also an easy transition from staff to board membership. Most non-profit CBOs function under the authority of a strong Executive Director model, where the entire staff is hired by the Executive Director. Many board members also serve at the pleasure; explicitly or implicitly of the Executive Director. So unlike unions there is ultimately no membership to answer to.

This separation of staff, board and member clients has had a chilling effect on the ability to really build a grass roots movement. It definitely has a chilling effect on trying to sustain a movement. Rather mobilization has taken the place of empowerment and organizing. Mass demonstrations have become a prop for media coverage. Turn-out is a lobbying effort to impress city hall. Nowhere is this more evident than in the tenant’s rights work in San Francisco. San Francisco has one of the most stringent rent control ordinances in the country. But to get relief from the local rent board, both tenants and landlords by necessity need to show up with a lawyer. All hearings eventually come before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), making any direct participation a fool’s journey. There are now no real tenant unions or collectives although one group still holds the name. A web search of their board will show a preponderance of attorneys. They lobby city hall, sometimes by turning out their tenants/clients whom they manage. Even if the eviction fight is righteous, the tenants are more their clients than the ones empowered to sit down and discuss housing and land use issues with the government or their landlord. Often the CBO-Non-profit groups lobby not only city hall but for-profit developers about whether or not they will support a project. In exchange the developer agrees to a fee which goes into a pot for low income housing which city hall can then transfer to the appropriate non-profit.

San Francisco’s main Non-Profits involved in housing gave up on a demand that housing developers build a percentage of affordable housing on-site long ago. Rather developers can legally not build a single unit of affordable housing in a project for in lieu of fees, which the non-profits are then reasonably confident City Hall will remit to them. This had the effect of re-segregating entire neighborhoods. It also had the effect of allowing non-profits in Chinatown and the Tenderloin to benefit off fees by developers in the Dog Patch/Mission Bay and the South of Market neighborhoods that wanted 100% market rate condos. This gentrification has depopulated African Americans Latinos and Filipinos from these two neighborhoods. It was legal bribery and City Hall and the larger non-profits were happy to play. Much of the current gentrification ravaging the East Side neighborhoods of San Francisco started with these policies hailed by progressives as a victory in extracting monetary concessions from for profit developers.


While unions have often been estranged from their members through undemocratic officials and a technocratic unaccountable staff, the potential of the membership to take back power is inherent in their financial contribution (dues), and their codified right to exercise direct power. These two factors are not in play for a majority of non-profit CBO’s currently working with lower paid workers and immigrants. More troubling is the move from direct fundraising and foundation grants to local government contracts which serve as the back-bone of organizational viability for many non-profits today. This has served to allow local government, like federal and state government before them, to privatize previous government services to the poor, at the same time creating a huge client base for the expanding non-profits. Led by People of Color educated from elite universities, many non-profits can avoid the intentionality of dealing with the class question. It also ties many non-profits to neo-liberal Democrats such as Mayor Ed Lee in San Francisco. They can no longer serve as the watch-dogs and critics of government abuse of low income working class residents. This does not serve grass roots organizing, nor does it train the poor and working class on how they should manage their own institutions and maybe some-day the world. If CBO’s and workers centers want to build a long term grass roots movement, they must be able to sustain themselves with a real membership based on dues and volunteer activism. Most importantly they must cut their umbilical cord of government funding, or they will never be able to challenge the state representatives of the ruling class.

Warren Mar is a labor organizer and was long active as a member of Local 2 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE). Before joining labor Warren Mar worked for a decade as a community organizer. He was the co-founder of two organizations which are still in existence today in SF Chinatown: Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) founded in 1973 and the Chinatown Youth Center (CYC) founded in 1969. He has served on the board of the CT Resource Center and helped organize, as an unpaid organizer, tenants at two Chinatown SRO’s.