Think tanks and unions

5 July 2021

Back in 2010, before founding OTT, I volunteered as a union rep at a think tank in the UK. It offered an opportunity to see the organisation from an entirely different perspective. I was privy to at least a couple of unfortunate cases that left both the staff involved, and me, bruised. 

With the benefit of hindsight, I realise that these cases  could have been avoided with better and more widely adopted management practices. The most striking common characteristic of the cases I was involved in was that managers lacked the necessary support to work with the staff under their charge. The union offered invaluable defence support to the young researchers affected, but more could have been done to prevent these situations. 

Another way that I observed the union supporting staff was, for instance, that it was instrumental in helping inform us of our rights with regard to the 48-hour working week directive enforced by EU labour standards. This helped structure staff discussions with management and inform how the issue was addressed within the organisation. 

A story broke earlier in 2021 in relation to the organising of the staff at the Brookings Institution. But really, in over a decade writing about think tanks I have not come across unions much. 

To find out more about think tanks and unions, I reached out to Katie Barrows, Vice President of Communications for the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU).

Why more think tanks are unionising

According to Katie, there has been a huge growth in non-profit organising in the US. Her local went from nine organisations where staff had unionised in 2017 to 30 in 2021. Many of these are think tanks, including  for instance: the Center for American Progress, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the Economic Policy Institute and the Urban Institute.

The full list of organisations that have unionised in Katie’s local over the last four years suggests a clear centre-left and progressive bias. But other organisational demographics vary: large and small, old and young and covering a range of policy issues from foreign policy to climate change to civil rights and economic policy. 

Still, according to figures from the Department of Labour, only 8% of non-profit organisations are unionised in the US. 

Katie Barrows argues that most non-profit workers think that ‘this is not for them’. They associate unions with manual labour; not professionals and certainly not non-profit workers. 

This lack of awareness is compounded by arguments against unionising that emphasise the potential damage on organisations and on their missions. 

However, in the NPEU’s experience, and in mine, the arguments for unionising are plenty.  For example:

  • Stronger organisations: Unionising can create systems and policies that help the non-profit perform better by avoiding inconsistent policies and treatment dependent on the skills and willingness of managers.
  • Fairer jobs: Non-profit workers are often seen to be working for a cause and can sometimes be unintentionally hurt by low pay or job instability. Often, there can be a  ‘you have to give more to the mission’ mentality. 
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion: Unions can offer staff the opportunity to introduce different tools to increase diversity and make the workplace more equitable. This can include provisions that encourage more diversity in hiring or provisions for pay reviews to make sure that people with the same experience or performing similar tasks are paid accordingly.
  • More funding: Many funders look at a unionised workforce as a sign that the organisation takes staff welfare seriously and, to some extent, are practicing what they preach. 

Being part of a union can offer other benefits, as well:

  • The local union can provide members with examples and experiences from other organisations, such as contracts or policies.
  • The union also provides access to a network of peers. The local union provides a space to share between unionised organisations, access to training, people can talk about their experiences, and offer advice and support.
  • Finally, the union awards staff with the power to bring about change and to engage with the organisation’s leadership without fear of retribution. 

Should all policy research organisations’ staff organise?

Probably not all research organisations’ staff need to organise in the strict sense of the word – nor could they all organise in the short term. Organising could demand that organisations will have to dramatically rethink their business models, entirely. 

But organising could be a good objective to aim for. 

In the meantime, many of the benefits described above can be enjoyed by forming and participating in peer networks or communities of practice – or accessing platforms like On Think Tanks! 

Additionally, funders are increasingly interested in their grantees and often enquire about and engage with staff. This offers staff a unique opportunity to voice any concerns and even leverage their funders’ interest to strengthen their position at the negotiating table. 

In fact, a recommendation to funders interested in the resilience of the organisations they support would be to reach out to staff as much as possible. 

Unions may not exist or be available to offer support to non-profits everywhere. In many countries, unions have been so systematically attacked that they have lost many of the capabilities and skills that non-profits need – and that constitute the main arguments for organising. 

I would also expect that in certain cases the ideological preferences of staff may bias them against unionising. Think tanks on the right of the political spectrum will no doubt attract researchers who  do not support the role of unions. 

In these cases, staff should seek support from peers – nationally and internationally. Networks such as Southern Voice, the Atlas Network or the African Capacity Development Foundation offer perfect platforms to share challenges and support each other. 

But where unions are able to serve non-profits and both staff and the organisations’ ideological preferences and missions are consistent with unionising I would argue that this should be seriously considered.