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Foundations embrace organized labor with $20 million plan


Following a string of union victories at Amazon and Starbucks, a group of prominent progressive grant makers is seeking to put a total of $20 million into a coalition with organized labor that will steer funds to organizing and advocacy campaigns in the South.

A contentious battle to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., provided much of the impetus to create the new fund, says Jennifer Epps, executive director of the Labor Innovations for the 21st Century Fund (LIFT), a 10-year-old philanthropy-labor collaboration that will manage the effort.

“If folks in Alabama said that they were going to stand up and fight for the things that they believe and that they deserve, why wouldn’t philanthropy and other organizations working to help folks improve their lives be there with them?” she says. "This is an opportunity to put our resources where our mouth is.”

The fund, called the Southern Workers Opportunity Fund, has secured commitments totaling $14 million from foundations that have contributed to LIFT over the course of its 10-year history, including the Ford and Kellogg foundations. The fund also includes contributions from the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, the Babcock, Surdna, Tara Health, and Robert Wood Johnson foundations. Decisions on which nonprofits will receive money will be made by a steering committee consisting of foundation and union leaders.

The support garnered by the Southern Workers Opportunity Fund reflects a growing interest among foundations in supporting workers’ rights more broadly. The fact that philanthropy and unions are working together on the fund and the targeting of the South, a region long inhospitable to organizing, reflects a change of focus for foundations, which had largely written off working with organized labor and supporting southern workers as lost causes, Epps says.

The new interest in supporting workers’ campaigns has also drawn criticism from opponents of unionizing, who say that such efforts run afoul of the spirit of laws cordoning off charitable giving from politics.

If the fund raises as much as it contemplates, it will significantly increase LIFT’s grantmaking budget, which is about $2 million a year. Grants will be awarded starting in the fall to workers’ groups emphasizing racial, gender, and economic justice.

The pandemic raised awareness of the difficulties faced by low-wage workers, Epps says, making it an ideal time for workers to parlay the increased attention into policy gains and organizing victories. As more manufacturers and warehouse companies have located in the South over the past decade, in large part because of “right-to-work laws,” which make it hard for workers to organize, activists like Epps, who came to the LIFT Fund last fall after a career as a union leader, say the need to bolster workers’ campaigns has become more crucial.

Epps and others involved in the fund are aware that union efforts face challenges in the South. One of their major short-term goals is to support small, successful projects that will attract more philanthropy, particularly regional donors, to the effort.

Grants from the Southern Workers Opportunity Fund will be made to nonprofit organizations that work to support worker centers, which are community organizations that support low-wage workers who are not represented by a union. Support will be given to groups pushing for community-benefit agreements that hold companies accountable for creating a certain number of local jobs with certain wage levels and benefits when they open a facility in a town.

But ultimately, Epps says, successfully negotiating a contract with employers is the key to increasing worker power.

“Collective bargaining agreements are the gold standard,” she says.

Anti-union critics see the combination of union and foundation dollars as something more nefarious: using philanthropic money earmarked for charity to tilt the political debate to suit progressive aims. The grants made by the fund will not go directly to unions organizing workplaces. But the fact that they are going to be made in consultation with unions gets into a legally gray area, says Richard Epstein, a law professor at New York University School of Law.

“This is not charitable work,” he says. “This is political advocacy.”

Epstein did not know the particulars of the LIFT Fund commitment. But he said foundations will “finesse” grants to support political work to be technically nonpolitical even though they are designed to achieve a political end.

José Garcia, senior program officer at the Ford Foundation, says that grants are not seeking to influence politics.

“We’re looking for the benefit of all workers,” he says. “This is not political. We see the poverty. We see people cannot put food on the table. This isn’t a political issue, it’s a human rights issue.”

The attention foundations and donors have paid to workers’ rights, and union organizing in particular, is a lot different from what Amy Dean experienced as an AFL-CIO leader in Silicon Valley in the 1990s. If foundations did make grants related to organized labor, she says, it was often directed at rooting out corruption in particular locales.

“I was told, ‘Forget about them. You‘ll never raise money for the labor movement,’” recalls Dean, now a consultant. “Philanthropy’s relationship to labor was either hatred or ambivalence, at best. Philanthropy was always sort of skeptical — it felt that the labor movement was too big, powerful, and influential.”

Foundations are coming to believe that the change they want to see will only come if workers have more say in the workplace, says Dean.

It’s a lesson learned from the #MeToo movement, the wave of protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and the string of union victories at places like Amazon and Starbucks that previously seemed impervious to attempts to organize, says Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director at the AFL-CIO.

“There’s a growing sense that the major problems in our country aren’t getting solved purely through policy interventions or charitable works,” Sweeney says. “What’s driving this from the foundation side is that people see the labor movement broadly as a place to change the balance of power.”


This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Alex Daniels is a senior reporter at the Chronicle. Email: [email protected]. The AP and the Chronicle receive support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. The AP and the Chronicle are solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.