When does a charitable foundation grow big enough that its staff should decide to unionize? When it’s worth nearly $20 billion, apparently—just ask employees at the Open Society Foundations (OSF).
Billionaire George Soros’s 501(c)(3) private foundation is a nonprofit with the budget of a wealthy for-profit company: it spent a mammoth $941 million in 2017 alone. That funding comes from the Hungarian-born Soros’s business success as a hedge fund manager, which has enabled him to evangelize his “open society” gospel (read: left-wing agenda) across the Western and developing worlds to the tune of some $32 billion since 1993.
In mid-April, OSF announced it had reached a Collective Bargaining Agreement with its staffers, who would organize under the aegis of a local branch of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). The union, which endorsed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, has been called a part of “a massive liberal plan to remake American politics” by the left-leaning magazine Mother Jones, and is one of the top donors to Democratic and progressive political groups in the country. CWA leadership also has ties to the Democracy Alliance, a kind of left-wing donors’ trade group (Soros is also a member).
Historically, workers have opted to join labor unions in order to seek out better pay or working conditions. Not so at OSF, apparently, where former president Christopher Stone insisted that the staff’s decision to unionize “was not about OSF employees winning higher pay and benefits, but about issues that often matter far more to white-collar workers—having a greater say in organizational decisions that affect their jobs and lives.”
The decision comes six months after a thundering announcement in October 2017 that the aged Soros would move a colossal $18 billion to OSF, the single largest donation in U.S. history. And it comes seven months after Stone was replaced as OSF president by former Obama aide and South Africa ambassador Patrick Gaspard.
Gaspard is a longtime Democratic operative; he started in politics on Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential bid, and later served as national deputy field director for Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. But Gaspard also spent nine years as executive vice president for politics and legislation for 1199 SEIU UHE, a branch of the Service Employees International Union and the largest union local in the nation. Gaspard, unsurprisingly, says he is “proud to have led the way among foundations” with the union agreement.
And in a sense, he’s right about “leading the way”—the Collective Bargaining agreement gives OSF the dubious distinction of being the first private foundation in the U.S. to unionize its employees. But it also raises a question that ought to concern donors and leadership in charities elsewhere: Should private grantmaking foundations have collective bargaining agreements?
Moreover, shouldn’t the focus of philanthropy remain on giving away money to causes the donor chooses, rather than padding employees’ nest eggs?
If OSF’s model encourages other union-minded workers, it could start a rash of collective bargaining agreements between foundations and Big Labor whether donors welcome it or not. That, in turn, might see more control stripped from the givers who created the foundations in order to advance their vision of philanthropy, and given to staffers who might not share their values.
Should that happen, it would surely be a grave defeat for American charity—and perhaps the most consequential part of George Soros’s tainted legacy.