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City must rein in anti-union nonprofits


This week, a toddler named Elio had his birthday a month after he lost his health insurance. Hospitalized with leukemia, Elio’s parents lost their health insurance when their employer, the nonprofit Mobilization For Justice (MFJ), canceled it in retaliation for striking for, among other issues, better health insurance.  

The 110 members of the Legal Services Staff Association (LSSA) UAW Local 2320 at the nonprofit legal services organization have been on an open-ended strike since February 26th. They struck for one day Feb. 2 after filing multiple unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. This may now be one of the longest strikes in nonprofit history, not including hospitals. 

MFJ is now actively trying to break the strike. “To add insult to injury, we recently learned that MFJ has hired scab labor to try to replace us,” Ella Abeo, a bargaining team member and paralegal in the association’s Housing Project, said in an email interview.

The strike is about not only inadequate health insurance coverage for families like Elio’s, but also raising pay for their lowest paid support staff, who are primarily women of color. Because the organization has a vacancy rate of about 20 percent, staff workloads to provide legal services for the poorest New Yorkers facing eviction have risen dramatically.  

The workers are simply asking the boss to live up to the principles in their mission statement. MFJ claims that it “envisions a society in which there is equal justice for all” and “prioritizes the needs of people who are low income … as they struggle to overcome the effects of social injustice and systemic racism.” 

Apparently, these principles don’t apply to MFJ workers who serve New York’s poorest. The organization’s mission is to mobilize for justice for everyone but its workers. Some of the staff are paid so little they are forced to work second jobs. By failing to live up to this promise, MFJ ensures justice for no one, even those it is funded to serve. 

Those working top jobs at the nonprofit are “doing well by doing good,” mistaking justice for just us. Its executive director, Tiffany Liston, earned $279,419 in total compensation in 2023, according to the organization’s IRS Form 990. That’s more than four times the starting staff salary of $51,000 to $53,000. Montel Cherry, the organization’s deputy director of diversity, received a total of $204,870, which is also four times the low pay for the staff of mostly female and people of color. The top 11 executives all have a total compensation package of no less than $167,000. 

Meanwhile, those actually doing the heavy work are woefully underpaid. Starting and maximum pay for staff attorneys, who have an average 3,000 cases per year, is below pay at Legal Aid. The low salaries, lack of flexible work schedules and inadequate health benefits have resulted in high staff turnover that disrupts services to clients and threatens the organization’s mission.  

MFJ can certainly meet the union’s modest economic demands because it receives large grants from the City of New York. The organization’s huge budget rose nearly 25 percent to $24.5 million from 2022 to 2023. Its total assets rose by $12 million or 45 percent. Net assets and funds rose by 18 percent in that same year and it currently has about $6 million in cash alone. 

The organization is funded by the city’s Universal Access to Counsel funding program, which provides no-cost legal services for those threatened with eviction, one of the first of its kind in the country. In 2023, MFJ received $9.3 million in funding for this program. The organization stands to receive a large share of the city's projected $408.5 million in funding for the right to an attorney over the next three years. 

MFJ’s mistreatment of its own workers is a classic hypocrisy of the nonprofit sector. I say this as a former longtime nonprofit worker myself. Nonprofits serve the public by exploiting the labor of workers who are most often just as poor and disenfranchised as those they serve. They exploit workers who believe in the mission and are pressured to work long days with poor pay, terrible working conditions and little control over their work. 

When they unionize to address these issues their bosses shame them for supposedly abandoning the people they are already struggling to serve. This story was perfectly portrayed in the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s 2023 musical production, “Breakdown.”   

As Nikita Salehi, a union delegate and staff attorney in MFJ’s Housing Project, explained in an email interview, nonprofit organizations “exploit their employees in nearly the exact same way that for-profit businesses exploit theirs — by trying to squeeze as much labor from us while cutting down on as much costs and benefits as possible.” 

The City Council is complicit in this exploitation by increasingly contracting with nonprofits to privatize the jobs of public sector workers. As I have previously written, there are now twice as many nonprofit workers than there are in the public sector in New York City, nearly all of them in education, health care and social services.  

The union has widespread support from the New Yorkers they serve, local politicians and other unions.  

Its City Council allies can and must do much more than express solidarity with the MFJ workers. The city can require that contracted nonprofits provide the same wages, benefits and working conditions public employees receive doing the same work. Nonprofits engaging in excessive unfair labor practices and anti-union tactics such as hiring scabs, as MFJ is doing right now, should be automatically put on probation or have their contract canceled. 

These policies would begin to rein in nonprofits’ exploitation of their workers. The city would be going on record that it is not outsourcing public sector work to nonprofits to slash labor costs.  

Until that happens it’s clear that the non-profitization of the public sector is just another privatization strategy that dismantles public sector unions in order to cover the costs of tax cuts for the rich and corporations.  

Robert is author of the forthcoming book “Rebels for the System” (Haymarket Press) about nonprofits and capitalism. He is also the editor of “Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle,” co-editor of the new “Real World Labor (Vol. 4)” and the author of “When Workers Shot Back: and “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few.” Follow him at @OvetzRobert. 

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