Monthly Archives: May 2016

Overtime and Social Justice

Edit: The Trump Justice Department announced on September 5, 2017, that it will not appeal a judge’s ruling against the overtime pay rule, leaving the workers I describe below unprotected and without what would have been a welcome salary boost.

The news about the Obama’s Administration’s overtime pay change took a few days to sink in for me. I didn’t immediately see it for what it was – a policy shift that would bring into sharp relief an issue that has been a constant thread in my career: how social justice nonprofits treat the people who work for them, what it reveals about their double standards, and what the implications are for gender equality.

The new policy mandates that employers must pay overtime to anyone making less than $47,500 per year and working over 40 hours per week. This has put some social justice nonprofits in an uncomfortable position. Nonprofits like U.S. PIRG have spoken out against the new rule, saying it should only apply to for-profit entities, and claiming that it would lead to nonprofit staff cuts. The director of PIRG said that those doing “mission-driven” work do not need the same protections as people at, say, McDonalds (the vast majority of whom I believe were already eligible for overtime pay).

This kind of ethical contortion (MY workers don’t need protection, only YOURS do) is unfortunately not surprising to me. Over the past 25 years, I have experienced the good and bad of working at social justice nonprofits. It has taught me some important yet devastating lessons about the ability of many nonprofit leaders to promote equality and human rights outside their organizations, while turning a blind eye, or worse, to the treatment of their own employees.

Like so many young progressives, I spent a summer canvassing in college. The group was working to end nuclear proliferation and testing (yes this was a long time ago), and daily sent me and my peacenik colleagues from Ann Arbor to the Detroit suburbs to raise money and awareness. But mostly money. The organization made it clear what it valued – you didn’t earn an hourly wage, or even compensation based on how many petition signatures you got. You got a percentage of your nightly fundraising. Even if you were doing great educational work going door-to-door, building name recognition for a pretty obscure organization, the organization only placed value on that work if you also brought in money.

There was also the human rights organization that I spent two years volunteering for in college – a position that was unpaid, for which I received no college credit. I was hopeful about getting a job there when I graduated – during my junior year abroad I had worked on human rights and served as a research associate for the organization’s founder. Coincidently, they had a job opening timed just when I was graduating – for a barely-survival-income, entry-level position, which I figured I was perfect for. So I was pretty disappointed when the director called me into his office to tell me that they had decided that instead of hiring me, they were opting for a religious volunteer – saving them about $6,000 in annual salary. There was some comfort – I had seen the crazy hours their entry-level staff worked, and knew that it would have been challenging if not impossible to pay DC rent on the salary they offered.

I could go on at great length – with things I’ve experienced or heard from others. The place I worked that promoted volunteering – yet didn’t have a comp time policy and required weekend work, so program staff couldn’t volunteer themselves. The child welfare organization that didn’t let employees go part time or have flex-time to be home with kids. The leaders of social justice organizations who regularly yell at and disrespect their employees. And so many (SO many) feminist organizations that, in different ways, show contempt for the young and fabulous feminists who work for them, or pay less-experienced men more than the women they replace.

But there have also been people who have shown real leadership on these issues. I remember one of the members on the board from my full-time job out of college, who was horrified by our miniscule salaries, saying the organization simply needed to just write higher salaries into our budget proposals (I still think many organizations just don’t think to do that). Working for the League of Women Voters out of grad school taught me the value of a union – I worked for the 501c3 side of things, but the 501c4 union had negotiated a 35-hour week and comp time, which we also benefited from. There are organizations that cap executive salaries in relation to those at the lowest rungs. These experiences reminded me that I could expect more – that not all nonprofits depend on heavy demands made of young professionals for poor compensation. That some nonprofits see organizational values as something they must embody internally, as well seek externally.

Of course, I was never in it for the money – as the PIRG director says, this was mission-driven work, and I felt (feel) a calling to contribute to human rights and gender equality. But too often, I have seen the passion for social change turned into a weapon against the very people who do much – if not most – of the hard work, and put in most of the hours. Because they are highly motivated by passion, the reasoning goes, they don’t need to be motivated by decent salaries or sustainable work hours or overtime pay. (This type of argument tends to go out the window when you reach the CEO level, strangely enough.) And how do you suppose that feels to young professionals with a college or graduate degree, living in a group house and barely affording student loan payments?

That nonprofit leaders – especially those working for social justice – don’t see the fundamental absurdity of this argument is very hard to swallow. What these leaders are showing is a blatant double standard, and what they are saying is a huge “screw you” to their employees – and in particular to young women.

As of 2011, women were three of every four employees in the nonprofit sector. At the levels applicable under this new rule (earning below $47,500) the proportion of women is likely even higher, because we know that women are underrepresented at top levels in the sector. (For example, a 2014 report found that men are 90 percent of the presidents of the largest conservation organizations.) So when any nonprofit leader says that his lower-paid workers shouldn’t get overtime, what he’s really saying is that female employees should not be paid overtime.

When you zoom out, this is what you see: a nonprofit sector fueled by the time and talents of young women, who have likely passed up opportunities to work for higher salaries elsewhere so they can pursue a passion for social change. Far too often, nonprofit leaders have been telling them their commitment to social justice will not be rewarded beyond the warm, fuzzy feeling of doing good. We can do better, and it appears that thanks to the Obama Administration we finally will.

Revolution and Inequality

Maybe it’s just my own personal Hamilton-mania talking, but it feels like we’re living in a revolutionary time.

Even if not quite revolutionary in the precise political science definition of the word, it is at least a moment brimming with possibility.[i] In sharp contrast to every other election in my lifetime, tackling inequality is among the fundamental urgencies driving voter decisions in the U.S. Democratic Party primaries. People seem to have their eyes fully open to the degree of transformation they are asking for, if not all the potential consequences. After all, disrupting the layered and interwoven financial and political systems that are sustaining (and sustained by) economic, social, gender, and racial inequality would be nothing short of tectonic.

But then, George Washington, in all his post-Cabinet-rap-battle wisdom,[ii] pulls me back to reality. Winning – whether it’s a war or an election – is easy, and governing is indeed harder. Politics is inevitably messy, and we often have to settle for better instead of best, as President Obama recently expressed so well in a speech to Howard University grads.

It is this tension between visionary idealism and incremental change that divides so many of those I know on the left. I’m not interested in writing another Bernie vs. Hillary piece, but just to boil it down: In Bernie Sanders, many see a refreshing break from politics-as-usual, a bold truth-teller, a debate changer, a person who can be trusted to take principled stands. While Hillary Clinton’s policy proposals share many of the same values, the course she articulates is consistently more measured. Many of her supporters see this as a more reasonable approach in line with current political realities.

Ideally, we would have both – a political leader who inspires broad support by igniting the fire of the possible in us, while deftly navigating a thorny political atmosphere by outsmarting opponents and (yes, sometimes) making deals. But if we cannot have both of those in one package, then the deft navigator is more important. It all comes down to the roles of government vs. civil society in creating progressive change.

Throughout history, progressive civil society organizations in the U.S. (as elsewhere) have worked separately and in concert to voice dissent, reveal oppressions, propose alternative political and economic visions, mobilize support, craft policy solutions, and hold authorities accountable to progressive policies and laws. It is essential that movement protagonists sit outside of government. This ensures at least a modicum of independence from government and party interests and pushes the boundaries of debate beyond what is politically accepted at the moment. It also allows civil society to play that watchdog role that is so essential – even (or especially) when a friendly political party holds power. Principled, well-articulated demands from civil society meet the political reality of negotiated progress. It’s usually not pretty, but it’s what has worked.

So when people talk about “revolution” in the context of a presidential campaign, I get nervous – mostly because I don’t believe it’s the role of a U.S. president to embody revolution. Why do we want so desperately to believe that one person at the executive level has to be the vanguard? Why do we give that power away from ourselves?

I also get nervous because many of the people supporting the revolution against inequality don’t seem to be as concerned about racial and gender inequality as they are about economic inequality – as if race and gender will sort themselves out once the economics are taken care of.[iii] Those most affected by economic and political inequality (people of color, especially women) are not the primary protagonists of this revolution, and that raises all kinds of questions about authenticity. Would their voices be lost when choices inevitably have to be made?

There’s also a practical reason for the president to not be the leader of the revolution. Pitching revolution in a campaign, promising an end to inequality, voicing commitment to a wide range of progressive goals – all of these are easy. But once someone promising massive change is in power, he or she has limited ability to fundamentally alter political and economic structures without support. Sustained mass mobilization – including the kind necessary to elect progressive allies at the state and local level – is essential to a progressive agenda. And it’s something we haven’t managed recently.

But we can. We can take all the passions that this campaign has stirred up on behalf of social and political transformation and we can channel it into civil society – into the organizations that work daily to win and sustain progress on a broader progressive agenda, including gun violence, abortion rights, institutional racism, pay equity, family leave, immigration, and campaign finance reform. All of the social media energy, all of the rallying – this can fuel a real revolution from the bottom up. There are already promising signals that this is happening. For example, some Sanders supporters have drafted a plan to harness the campaign’s strength to defeat Trump in the fall, fully aware that a Trump presidency would seriously impede a progressive agenda.

I really want to close on this optimistic note, but I unfortunately can’t. I fear that Sanders’ campaign is becoming cynical, and nothing kills participation in the political process better than cynicism – the overwhelming feeling that the game is fixed and there’s no chance to influence the process. Top Sanders officials dismissed reports of that plan for anti-Trump mobilization by actually saying “we could care less.” The campaign’s response to the vile insults and threats leveled against Nevada’s Democratic Party convention chair was a tepid repudiation of harassment couched in a full throated proclamation that they had been cheated by “the establishment.” One of the texts the convention chair received from an apparent Sanders supporter said, “I would rather vote for Hitler than Hillary.” Let that sink in a bit.

Progressives can certainly squander this moment and decide politics is bull and compromise is capitulation. But that will do nothing to end inequality. If people really think Hillary will not fight for progressive ideals as president, what better way to ensure she does than to stay mobilized, get a progressive Congress, and put pressure on her from outside the White House?

We have a revolutionary moment to challenge inequality. We cannot throw away our shot.[iv]


[i] In political science terms, I would label Sanders as more of a populist than a revolutionary.

[ii] All praise and thanks to Lin Manuel Miranda, from whose brilliant work I have borrowed phrases and concepts.

[iii] There are endless examples of populist movements (and even revolutions) in Latin America failing to address racial and gender inequality. For example, leftist leader and former revolutionary Daniela Ortega in Nicaragua made abortion laws stricter in his country in exchange for support from the Catholic Church.

[iv] Lin Manuel Miranda’s words again.