Originally published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy on May 1, 2023
By Pamela Shifman and Shekar Narasimhan
Today — May 1— is celebrated as Labor Day around the world. Although the holiday commemorates a strike by Chicago workers in 1886 who demanded an eight-hour workday, it often passes largely unnoticed in the United States. And yet the importance of worker organizing has rarely been more urgent in America.
Labor unions are the countervailing force the United States needs against nearly every trend eroding democracy, including rising political polarization and extremism, partisan pressure on the electoral process, harmful immigration policies, and growing wealth disparities.
Unions and other strategies that build worker power are not just vital to democracy — they are also central to many issues philanthropy cares about, including reducing economic inequality, addressing health disparities, and protecting voting rights.
Research shows that unions increase wealth for all households regardless of race, but spur even larger increases for Black and Hispanic households. As unions improve worker safety, they also reduce health inequality. The Economic Policy Institute found that in states with a strong union presence, incomes are higher and more people have health insurance. Critically, these states also have fewer voter restrictions, greater civic engagement, less racial resentment, and increased support among white workers for policies that benefit Black people.
In advancing his democracy agenda, President Biden put it this way: “In a simple word, a union means there is democracy. … Organizing, joining a union — that’s democracy in action.”
We have witnessed this countless times ourselves through our work at the Democracy Alliance. Whether sitting around a table debating issues critical to families, knocking on doors, or turning out voters, labor organizing is the wheels of American democracy moving the nation toward a more equitable and just future.
For further proof of unions’ correlation to democracy, look at who is dismantling them. Authoritarians in both Turkey and Egypt have spent the last 20 years methodically eroding the power of unions. And Hungary’s far-right leader, Viktor Orbán, has targeted worker organizing and the right to strike as a central pillar in his authoritarian agenda.
Fortunately, just as democracy in the United States is backsliding, support for unions is surging. According to Gallup, 71 percent of Americans now support unions, the highest rate since 1965. The sacrifice and heroism of workers during the pandemic — coupled with a robust job market, changing workplace dynamics, unprecedented federal investment in green jobs, and a new White House executive order to improve pay and benefits for caregiving jobs — have put the brightest spotlight in generations on unions and workers.
For philanthropy, all of this creates significant opportunity to engage a rapidly evolving labor movement that increasingly includes women, people of color, and immigrants in leadership roles. Grant makers can support efforts to integrate workplace democracy, racial and gender justice, and worker dignity into the DNA of burgeoning industries such as electric vehicle and battery manufacturing — and help extend those same benefits to all fields.
3 Key Steps
To take advantage of this moment, strategic investments are needed at the intersection of workers’ rights and democracy by donors who are willing to act boldly, move quickly, and work together to deploy every tool available to them.
First, foundations should support innovative efforts to protect workers who are fired for organizing. As more workers come together to build power, they face a barrage of threats and intimidation from employers. Rapid-response efforts make it possible for these workers to stay in the fight, ensuring that they can continue to pay rent and put food on the table. For example, the nonprofits Unemployed Workers United, Coworker, and Jobs With Justice have formed the Fired Up! Worker Solidarity Network to help workers facing retaliation cover their day-to-day bills and gain access to paid fellowships that help them improve their organizing skills.
Second, philanthropy can help strengthen the infrastructure needed for worker organizing, including training and network building. Some of the most important work of this kind is led by people of color, especially women of color, who understand that community organizing and worker organizing are deeply linked.
The National Black Worker Center, for instance, trains worker activists and leads regional and national campaigns to build the influence of Black workers. The Southern Workers Opportunity Fund invests in efforts to increase worker power and improve the economic livelihoods and social conditions for workers across Southern states. Groups such as the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement are similarly focused on assisting worker organizers in the communities they represent.
Third, donors should support policy advocacy to advance workers’ rights. The Center for Labor and a Just Economy, for example, has spent years testing and researching what labor laws and policies are needed to help workers increase their influence and participate meaningfully in democracy. At the top of the list is dismantling the living legacy of U.S. labor laws that intentionally excluded huge swaths of Black workers, women, and immigrants, and entire industries dominated by women and people of color. As a starting point, this means extending labor-law coverage to explicitly include domestic, agricultural, undocumented, and incarcerated workers, and workers with disabilities.
Finally, donors who are serious about shifting power from corporations to working people can’t show up with one hand tied behind their back. That’s why the Democracy Alliance is making support of 501(c)(4) organizations, in addition to 501(c)(3) groups, a priority. We hope others will join us.
Strong (c)(4) funding makes it possible to unleash the full power of organized workers and ensure unions can drive real change at the ballot box. One Fair Wage, for example, has already collected hundreds of thousands of signatures for 2024 ballot measures in Michigan, Arizona, and Ohio that would raise wages for 1 million workers in each state. Another group, Care in Action, ran one of the largest voter-contact programs in Georgia during the 2021 U.S. Senate runoff, ultimately flipping the Senate to Democrats.
Momentum is growing overall for philanthropic support of labor movements. Foundations investing in worker rights include the Ford Foundation, Omidyar Network, James Irvine Foundation, Hearthland Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations. Now, more democracy grant makers have an opportunity to come to the table as well.
By working together to support unions and worker organizing, donors focused on democracy can do more than save our country from division and dysfunction. Together, we can build the thriving, multiracial democracy our nation needs and deserves.
Pamela Shifman is president of the Democracy Alliance. Shekar Narasimhan is a board member of the Democracy Alliance and chairman and founder of the AAPI Victory Fund.