Foundations embrace organized labor with $20 million plan

After a series of labor victories at Amazon and Starbucks, a group of prominent progressive funders is seeking to invest a total of $20 million in a coalition with labor unions that will direct funds to organizing and advocacy campaigns in South.

A contentious battle to syndicate an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, provided much of the impetus to create the new fund, said Jennifer Epps, executive director of Labor Innovations for the 21st Century Fund (LIFT), a young 10 year old girl. philanthropy-labour collaboration who will manage the effort.

“If people in Alabama said they were going to stand up and fight for the things they believe in and deserve, why wouldn’t philanthropy and other organizations working to help people improve their lives not there with them?” she says. “It’s an opportunity to put our resources where our mouth is.”

The fund, called the Southern Workers Opportunity Fund, has secured commitments totaling $14 million from foundations that have contributed to LIFT over its 10-year history, including the Ford and Kellogg foundations. The fund also includes contributions from the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union, Babcock, Surdna, Tara Health and Robert Wood Johnson foundations. Decisions about which nonprofits will receive money will be made by a steering committee made up of foundation and union leaders.

The support garnered by the Southern Workers Opportunity Fund reflects a growing interest among foundations in broader support for workers’ rights. The fact that philanthropy and unions are working together on the fund and targeting the South, a region long inhospitable to unionization, reflects a shift in focus for foundations, which had largely moved away from working with organized workers and supporting Southern workers as lost causes, says Epps.

The newfound interest in supporting workers’ campaigns has also drawn criticism from opponents of unionization, who say such efforts run counter to the spirit of laws banning charitable donations from politics.

If the fund raises as much as it expects, it will significantly increase LIFT’s grantmaking budget, which is approximately $2 million per year. Grants will be awarded starting in the fall to labor groups focusing on racial, gender and economic justice.

The pandemic has raised awareness of the hardships faced by low-wage workers, Epps says, making it the perfect time for workers to put the heightened focus on political gains and organizing victories. While more manufacturers and warehousing companies have moved into the South over the past decade, largely because of “right to work laws” that make it difficult to organize workers, activists like Epps, who came to the LIFT Fund late after a career as a union leader, say the need to support workers’ campaigns has become more crucial.

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

Southern Workers Opportunity Fund grants will be awarded to nonprofit organizations that support worker centers, which are community organizations that support low-wage workers who are not represented by a union. Support will be given to groups lobbying for community benefits agreements that hold companies accountable for creating a certain number of local jobs with certain wage levels and benefits when they open a facility in a city.

But ultimately, says Epps, successfully negotiating a contract with employers is key to increasing worker power.

“Collective agreements are the gold standard,” she says.

Anti-union critics see the combination of union and foundation dollars as something more nefarious: using philanthropic money earmarked for charity to sway political debate towards progressive goals. Grants from the fund will not go directly to unions organizing workplaces. But the fact that they are made in consultation with unions enters a legally gray area, says Richard Epstein, a law professor at New York University School of Law.

“It’s not charity work,” he says. “It’s a political plea.”

Epstein did not know the details of the LIFT Fund commitment. But he said foundations will “fine tune” grants to support policy work so that they are technically apolitical, even if they are designed to achieve a political goal.

Jose Garcia, senior program manager at the Ford Foundation, says the grants don’t seek to influence policy.

“We seek the benefit of all workers,” he says. “It’s not political. We see the misery. We see that people can’t put food on the table. It’s not a political issue, it’s a human rights issue.

The attention that foundations and donors have given to workers’ rights, and labor organizing in particular, is very different from what Amy Dean experienced as leader of the AFL-CIO in Silicon Valley. in the 1990s. If foundations gave grants related to organized work, she says, this was often aimed at rooting out corruption in particular places.

“I was told, ‘Forget them. You will never raise money for the labor movement,” recalls Dean, now a consultant. “The relationship of philanthropy to work was either hateful or ambivalent at best. Philanthropy has always been a little skeptical – it felt the labor movement was too big, powerful and influential.

Foundations are coming to believe that the change they want to see will only happen if workers have more of a say in the workplace, Dean says.

It’s a lesson learned from the #MeToo movement, the wave of protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and the string of labor victories at places like Amazon and Starbucks that previously seemed unresponsive to attempts to organization,” said Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director at the AFL-CIO.

“There’s a growing sense that our country’s major problems aren’t being solved by political intervention or charity alone,” Sweeney says. “What’s driving this on the foundation side is that people see the broader labor movement as a place to change the balance of power.”


This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Alex Daniels is a senior reporter at the Chronicle. Email: [email protected] The AP and the Chronicle are supported by the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. The AP and the Chronicle are solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit

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