People-Centered Union Busting

Companies that espouse the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion are increasingly fighting unionization at their workplaces. Code for America is no different.

America is in the midst of a labor renaissance. Participation and interest in organized labor is growing as workers come together to express their desires for respect, fairness, and dignity in the workplace—just this week, actors and writers in Hollywood came together to strike for better conditions for the first time since the 1960s.

In a setting like this—a notoriously exploitative, for-profit industry—everyone expects the boss to fight the union.

But workers are also unionizing and expressing their collective power in the world of socially conscious companies, “good” brands, and nonprofits—what does it look like when the bosses there also don’t want a strong union?

Many organizations that have fostered progressive images—ones where diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the forefront of their company values—have seen their workers unionize recently. It makes sense. These organizations tend to attract workers who share their values. Those same values often align with the goals of unionization: more democratic decision making, giving workers a say in their conditions, and centering the voices of the most marginalized people in an organization.

When workers at these companies form unions and flex their collective power, the values at these socially conscious organizations are tested—and more and more, they’re being exposed as surface-level. Take the unionization fights happening at REI or Planned Parenthood, for example. Management at these companies are leveraging brand goodwill to cover up power imbalances, comparing “how much better they are than other companies” with their “best in class” package to deflect from legitimate criticisms of the workplace, and using the language of diversity, equity, and inclusion to undermine unionization).

As labor scholar Kevin Van Meter wrote last year, “The problem with nonprofit corporations and businesses with a progressive image is that their ideals don’t apply to those who work there. Moreover, said ideals are often lacking a class and power analysis. Challenge a ‘progressive’ boss’s power and see how quickly they behave badly.”

Code for America: a case study

In May, a Code for America staff member expressed concerns with the antagonistic nature of the unionization process to CEO Amanda Rentería, who provided a clarifying response via email detailing her thought process during union negotiations. In it, she writes:

There are an increasing number of non-profits accused of ‘union-busting’ in public domains. The early research of these accusations in the non-profit sector are revealing that non-profits are held to a different (higher) standard than their for-profit counterparts in the unionization movement. It is still unclear whether the accusations in the non-profit sector are intended to be a negotiating tactic to create public pressure or intent to legally file a claim.

This response is illuminating. Rather than taking accusations of union busting at Code for America seriously and examining the organizational culture that led us here, management’s response is to deflect and say that the union has only levied the extremely serious (and well-documented) charges of union busting as a negotiation tactic.

Code for America management is using a tired, classic union busting playbook: delay, divide, deny.

  • They have repeatedly unilaterally canceled bargaining since we formed our union in October 2021. They have left countless emails from our union’s lawyer unread, stalled for months on sending us proposals with minimal edits, and denied our requests for longer and in-person bargaining sessions.
  • They have attempted to intimidate bargaining committee members, retaliated against organizers, broken Weingarten rights of workers past and present, and spread lies about the union internally to sow dissent.
  • When confronted with these things, they have denied and deflected, painting the union as an external antagonistic force threatening the organization rather than a collection of the very workers who make this organization what it is and who want a say in our conditions.

Our union represents a broad diversity of people across Code for America, including workers who are BIPOC, queer and trans, disabled and neurodivergent, from difficult socioeconomic backgrounds, parents and caregivers, and immigrants. Importantly, our union represents almost everyone at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy, typically those who have the least amount of money and power, and who will therefore feel changes to the workplace the most. Code for America externally commits itself to the practice of “incorporating insights from the people closest to the problems we are trying to solve,” and yet internally, management has not shown interest in truly listening to the members of our union about our concerns in the workplace.

We can make so much change!—but not like that

Code for America prides itself on setting and maintaining a high standard for its values, products, and services. Leadership for the nonprofit claims to be at the forefront of innovation, and the organization often self-refers as the “leader in the field of civic technology”—but ultimately, the innovation narrative seems to be deployed only when it is convenient. When we expect Code for America to meet that same high standard that they publicly profess, management claims that the union is holding the nonprofit to an unfair standard relative to partner organizations in the industry or for-profit peers.

a meme showcasing Code for America's attitudes publicly vs privately

Management has frequently claimed that we are breaking new ground by being among the first in our field to unionize—and that because no one has done this before, the process may take awhile. And yes, in our niche, we are breaking new ground. But in a broader, truer sense, we absolutely are not. Though new to our sector (which is relatively young itself), unionization is not a new process. Millions of workers in this country have unionized thousands of organizations, and the process, while it can be difficult, is not something that takes this long to see through—unless one side is purposefully attempting to make it impossible to move forward.

Code for America can’t have it both ways. Either we’re an agile, innovative organization that values the people who work here and the people we serve, or we’re not. Either we uphold our professed values of “listening first, acting with intention, and including those who have been excluded,” or we don’t. It’s that simple.

Sticking to our values—not just in public forums and spaces where it is convenient—is all we are asking of management. That they treat the union in private the same way they are proclaiming to treat us in public: with dignity, respect, and an eagerness to collaborate.

Jon Stewart once said, “if you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values, they’re hobbies.” Code for America’s values are being tested. We hope they can ring truer in the coming weeks as we work towards our first union contract. Our workers, our clients, and our partners all deserve to be proud of this place—and we know we can achieve this goal if management makes a genuine effort to meet us at the bargaining table and live out our values, even when it’s hard.

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