The on-line ChiTownDailyNews reports a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on at a charter school where teachers are talking–and preparing to do more than talk–about organizing a union.

The Nonprofiteer doesn’t know the rights and wrongs of this particular engagement, but she firmly believes that charter schools–like other nonprofits–are the most fertile territory for union organizing, and she’s not surprised to see that organizing professionals have figured that fact out as well. Combine the relative immobility of most nonprofits–the Art Institute of Chicago won’t pick up stakes and move to Singapore–with their routine underpayment and general exploitation of their employees, and it shouldn’t be a surprise when the union comes to call.

Nonprofits sustained themselves for many years on the unwaged labor of women, and for many years after that by skimping on financial capital and trying to make up the difference in human capital. Everyone who works in the sector is familiar with poor salaries, no benefits, routine demands for unpaid overtime and other violations of the labor laws, and a resistance to improved working conditions based on the “let’s you and him fight” argument that decent salaries for nonprofit workers can only come out of the pockets of nonprofit clients–instead of the pockets of nonprofit Board members, whose job it is to provide resources for their beloved agencies.

It’s not clear that the tactic in this particular organizing battle–to point out that charter schools get public money and thus should treat their teachers the same as those in public schools–is especially on point. (And, to reiterate: the Nonprofiteer is not making any assertions about this particular school, its particular Board of Directors, or its particular employment policies.) Rather, it seems to the Nonprofiteer, teachers at nonprofit charter schools should range themselves on the side of all nonprofit employees, and note that the people who do society’s hardest and most important work should probably be paid reasonably for the privilege.

Nonprofits must economize, sure, and more now than ever; but they don’t get to do it on the backs of their workers.

imageKelly Kleiman, who blogs as The Nonprofiteer, is principal of NFP Consulting, which provides strategic planning, Board development and fundraising advice to charities and philanthropies. She is also a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays about the arts, philanthropy and women’s issues have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; and on websites including and