image I just returned from my hometown, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where I attended a conference for nonprofit leaders put on by the group Independent Sector. One of the highlights of the event was the opening speech by Andy Stern, president of one of the nation’s largest trade unions, the Service Employees International Union. Stern is a bold guy who recently led the SEIU, along with the Teamsters and several other big unions, out of the AFL-CIO. In his talk, he addressed many of the same issues and concerns confronting nonprofits—the effects of globalization, a broken health care system, failing schools, and growing income inequality.

Listening to him made me wonder, Why do nonprofits talk a lot about partnering with business and government, yet rarely talk about building partnerships with trade unions? Unions and nonprofits are natural allies, sharing many of the same concerns about health care, education, housing, social justice, and the environment.

More importantly, if it weren’t for unions, there would be tens of millions more Americans on the poverty rolls without health care insurance and many of the other benefits we’ve come to associate with middle-class life. The nonprofit sector would have a lot more work to do if it weren’t for unions. (I know this not only from having studied the labor movement, but from having spent several years as a member of SEIU Local 250, working as a nurse’s aid in nursing homes and hospitals.)

As Robert Senkler, CEO of Securian Financial Group (a large provider of insurance, asset management, and trust services), said later during his speech on creating partnerships between business and nonprofits, one of the most important things his company can do to be socially-responsible is create good jobs. That’s true. The only thing I’d add is that sometimes companies need nudges from unions to create good jobs—jobs that pay well, offer health care benefits and paid vacations, and the like.

The Twin Cities is the birthplace of some of the most innovative trade unions in America and some of our most socially-responsible corporations and capitalists. The Teamsters union, which like the SEIU focuses on organizing low-skilled workers, became as strong as it did because a group of Teamsters in the Twin Cities launched an innovative organizing drive in the mid-1930s that targeted truckers.

And American corporations have learned much about corporate philanthropy from the leadership of Twin City companies like Dayton Hudson (forerunner of Target). Dayton and other Minnesota-based companies created the Five Percent Club, companies that contributed five percent of pre-tax profits to philanthropy. As a result of this largess, the Twin Cities has one of the most vibrant nonprofit sectors and strongest arts communities in the country. Minneapolis is home to not only enlightened capital and labor, but also to some of the most progressive political parties and politicians in the country, exemplified by folks like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Eugene McCarthy.
Cross sector partnerships are now becoming the rage. And for good reason. One of the principal reasons that the Twin Cities always rank near the top of the lists of the best places to do business or live is because businesses, nonprofits, and the public sector (and trade unions, I might add), have learned how to work together.

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Eric Nee is the managing editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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