Politics The foundations hired organized workers with a $ 20...

The foundations hired organized workers with a $ 20 million plan


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Following a string of union successes on Amazon and Starbucks, a group of leading Progressive Grant makers is seeking to put a total of $ 20 million into a coalition with organized workers, which will fund organizing and advocacy campaigns in the South.

Jennifer Epps, executive director of Labor Innovations for the 10-year-old 21st Century Fund (LIFT), said the controversial battle to consolidate the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala, had given much impetus to the creation of the new fund. Charity-labor collaboration that manages the effort.

“If people in Alabama say they trust and stand up for what they deserve, why not have philanthropy and other organizations be there to help people improve their lives?” She says. “It’s an opportunity to put our resources where our mouth is.”

Known as the Southern Workers Opportunity Fund, the fund has received a total of $ 14 million in commitments from foundations that have contributed to LIFT over its 10-year history, including the Ford and Kellogg Foundation. The fund also includes the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union, Babcock, Surdna, Tara Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Decisions on what kind of non-profit organizations should receive money are made by a steering committee consisting of the Foundation and union leaders.


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    The support provided by the Southern Workers Opportunity Fund reflects the growing interest among the foundations in furthering the rights of workers. Philanthropy and the unions are working together on the fund and targeting the South, an area that has not long enjoyed organizing, reflects a change in the foundations, working with organized labor and abolishing much of the support for Southern workers for lost reasons. , Says Epps.

    The new interest in supporting workers’ campaigns has also led to criticism from those opposed to the union, saying such efforts run counter to the spirit of laws that bar generosity from politics.

    If the fund raises as much as it thinks it will, it will significantly increase LIFT’s grant-making budget of $ 2 million a year. Grants from the fall will be provided to groups of workers who emphasize racial, gender and economic justice.

    The pandemic has raised awareness of the plight of low-wage workers, Epps says, adding that it is time for workers to parole the increased focus on managing policy gains and successes. As more manufacturers and warehousing companies are located in the South over the past decade, it will be harder for workers to manage due in large part to “work-right laws,” activists such as EPS, who finally came to the LIFT Fund.

    Epps and others involved in the fund know that union efforts will be challenged in the South. One of their main short-term goals is to support small, successful projects that attract more philanthropists, especially regional donors, to the effort.


    Grants from the Southern Workers’ Opportunity Fund are provided to non-profit organizations working in support of Worker Centers, community organizations that support low-wage workers who are not represented by the union. When opening a facility in a town support groups are pressured for community-benefit deals where companies are responsible for creating a certain number of local jobs with specific wage levels and benefits.

    But in the end, Epps says, successfully negotiating a deal with employers is key to maximizing workers’ power.

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

    Anti-union critics see the combination of union and foundation dollars as even more vicious: diverting the political debate in line with progressive goals of philanthropic money allocated to charity. Grants from the fund do not go directly to the unions that run the workplaces. But Richard Epstein, a law professor at the New York University School of Law, said the fact that the unions were going to be consulted and made legally would turn gray.

    “It was not a voluntary act,” he said. “This is political advocacy.”


    Epstein did not know the details of the lift fund commitment. Although designed to achieve a political end, he said foundations provide “fine” grants to keep political work technically non-political.

    Jose Garcia, a senior program officer at the Ford Foundation, said he was not asking for grants to influence politics.

    “We are looking for the benefit of all workers,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then. We are seeing poverty. We see that people cannot put food on the table. This is not a political issue, it is a human rights issue.

    Amy Dean’s experience as an AFL-CIO leader in Silicon Valley in the 1990s was very different from the foundations and donors ‘attention paid to workers’ rights and especially to union organizing. She said if the foundations make grants to organized workers, it is often intended to eradicate corruption in specific areas.

    “I was told, ‘Forget about them. You will never raise money for the labor movement,’ recalls Dean, who is now a consultant. Charity has always been skeptical – the labor movement felt it was too big, too powerful and too influential.

    Dean said the foundations believe that the more workers talk in the workplace, the change they want to see.


    This is a lesson learned from the #MeToo movement, the wave of protests after the assassination of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police and the series of union victories in places like Amazon and Starbucks that seemed inaccessible in the past, Christian Sweeney, deputy. Organizing Director at AFL-CIO.

    “There is a growing perception that major problems in our country cannot be completely solved through policy interventions or charitable work,” Sweeney said. “What drives it from the grassroots level is that people see the labor movement broadly as a place to change the balance of power.”


    The article was published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy by the Associated Press. Alex Daniels is a senior reporter at the Chronicle. Email: alex.daniels@philanthropy.com. Supported by AP and Chronicle Lily Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and non-profit organizations. AP and Chronicle are fully responsible for the entire content. For all of AP’s charity coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

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