A union brings democracy to the workplace, giving each employee a voice and a vote in decisions. Through a collaborative structure, the SPWU Union is committed to instilling positive change at MDRC. As a collective of individual workers, we invite all eligible employees to contribute to this process, working across age, gender, race, ethnicity, job title, and professional experience to actively decide the priorities of the union. This sustained effort promises to yield a huge reward: the creation of systems at MDRC that allow us all to thrive, enhance our working conditions, and improve our overall quality of life.
Based on the priorities staff have shared and the legal scope of a union, we have identified the following priorities to build our first contract around. We invite you to review the below sections and speak with your shop steward about which priorities are most urgent and would most improve your working conditions at MDRC.
Transparent policies and practices.
Accountability to staff concerns.
Fairness in our workplace.
Diversity, equity, & inclusion.
Transparent Policies and Practices
Time and time again, we have heard from you that you wish you understood more about the policies at MDRC that dictate the day-to-day of our work. It can be surprising to discover how hard it is to answer some of these questions:
How do I get promoted?
How do I get fired?
What exactly is my role at MDRC? What is expected of me in my role and what work is beyond that role?
How much are my colleagues getting paid, and why might it be more than I am paid?
How do my leaders decide who is assigned to particular projects?
Whether it is due to seniority, our supervisors, our siloed policy areas, or random chance, too many of us go through the day feeling confused, excluded, and disempowered. We know that this isn’t on purpose, and that leadership is attempting to make changes to become more transparent. At the same time, we know that without input from workers, the changes they propose and implement are more likely to be narrow and limited rather than systematic and structural.
A lack of transparency allows implicit and explicit biases to creep in, harming women, Black, Indigenous, people of color, and other marginalized MDRC employees the most. Too many excellent peers have left our organization because they have felt confused about how to succeed here. This urgently needs to change.
At MDRC, even our basic day-to-day work obligations aren’t written down. Through writing a contract with MDRC leadership, we believe a union can create a transparent work environment where crucial information is shared with all staff and information-sharing is the norm rather than the exception.
But our union can do so much more than clarify job descriptions and responsibilities. There are many other steps we can take towards sharing power and greater transparency in our organization. What that means can be incredibly expansive, but here are some of the actions other unions have taken in this area:
The Economic Policy Institute union requires their leadership to inform the union before hiring or firing new employees, or before making any major financial decisions.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research requires their leadership to collaborate with the union to determine their organization’s mission, purpose, and work products. Their union also democratically elects an employee to sit on their board of directors as a full voting member.
Dozens of local unions organized with AFSCME have stipulated in their union contract or through mutual agreements that a union member must sit on any hiring committee.
By unionizing our workplace, we are gaining a seat at the table where major decisions are made so we can actively help reshape MDRC. We all value our organizational mission and the work that we do. After all, we choose to spend years working here together. We were drawn to the unionizing effort because of a belief in the greatness of MDRC. By rolling up our sleeves and diving into this work, we can create a workplace that reflects our values and our passion for rigorous research even more.
Accountability to Staff Concerns
The power of a union is in our contract: leadership at a workplace is legally required to negotiate a contract with a union when one is formed. Once we have hammered out the details and put pen to paper, we have a binding agreement that leaders at MDRC must uphold.
It can be hard to think about what this means for us at MDRC. To give one example, take MDRC’s current process for reworking various workplaces policies. So far this year, PRED leadership has started by focusing on the policies around authorship on reports and telecommuting. In a departure from the previous ways of making workplace policy decisions – which included almost no staff input at any stage – leadership is now asking staff to fill out a survey on each policy. While this could be a much greater method for adjusting policies, it remains very unclear how this staff input is being used, if at all. Instead, MDRC leaders have presented a new version of these policies without any connection to staff concerns or preferences.
In the past year, MDRC’s leaders have verbally committed to making changes at our work. Some changes have even begun to be implemented: creating a hiring rubric for research assistants, adjusting aspects of new staff onboarding. However, we are also aware that these changes are reversible and contingent on factors out of our control. Should the person championing a particular reform effort get shifted to a new role or leadership see a financial gain from dropping a policy, we currently have little recourse to protect our nascent progress. A union could push leadership to more seriously and permanently commit to making these policy changes.
Fairness in our Workplace
Some of the most painful accounts we have heard have been about feelings of inequality at work. Our colleagues have shared that they feel underpaid compared to their peers in the same position, undervalued because they aren’t in the PRED department, and unheard while languishing under poor leadership. These are very serious issues that we must address so that MDRC can be a welcoming and meaningful place to work. None of us do our best work when we feel that we are not being paid or respected as much as our peers.
The status quo allows for the structural inequalities that exist in our society to be replicated within our workplace. This is true with the imbalances in pay between technical and non-technical research staff at the same level, where technical staff get paid more. With an office culture where salaries are kept secret and we don’t know how our compensation compares to our peers, we lose our power and feel pressured to accept the pay we are offered. However, if we could all see how much people across the agency are paid, we could challenge the systematic inequalities in pay that exist at MDRC and have gone unmonitored and unchecked since our founding.
Our current leadership team has acknowledged some of these issues, and we appreciate their acknowledgement. The root causes assessment, now being conducted by an outside consultant, will likely explore many of these inequalities and the reasons they exist in our work. However, we cannot rely on one-off assessments by outside groups to equalize our work. Only active engagement and clear reform on an ongoing and recurring basis can make this change happen.
One critical inequality that has surfaced again and again at MDRC is between PRED and other departments at MDRC, particularly CORE. Staff in CORE have expressed feeling stuck in their positions, often without opportunities for growth or professional development. Moreover, the unceremonious reshuffling of the finance department and shift to one-year offers for new hires in CORE suggests that their department is facing greater job precarity while staff in PRED are insulated from these concerns. This is not a fair way to structure our workplace. Instead, we must avoid replicating inequalities that exist outside of our workplace inside it and begin treating CORE staff fairly.
Pushing for standardized policies within a workplace is one of unions’ key means of making change. Through the contract negotiation process, we can write policies that equalize and standardize the aspects of our jobs that are currently unequal and subjective. What we decide to prioritize is up to us, but other workplaces have included the following in their contracts:
Mandating minimum pay and creating a clear pay ladder for raises and promotions.
Mandatory supervisor training and instituting 360 performance reviews for all staff including supervisors.
Protections against sudden layoffs and outsourcing for whole departments.
Requiring training opportunities be offered to a broad array of staff.
Adjusting hiring practices to prioritize internal hires.
We are not entering this process from a blank slate. Certain policy areas and departments have already taken bold steps in this area, instituting changes in supervisor feedback, and including junior staff in strategic decisions. These changes are meaningful and can serve as useful templates and examples to bring to our new contract. As employees of MDRC, we believe that we are the best people to decide what parts of our job we want to change. After all, we are the people most affected by the status quo and the ones who will have to live with any change we make. It’s up to us to create a fairer workplace by clarifying and standardizing our vague policies.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in
our Research and Workplace
As researchers who are committed to improving the lives of others, we should aspire to foster an inclusive and equitable workplace and to conduct equitable research. It is clear that MDRC leadership has failed to make sufficient progress towards either of these goals on their own. People of marginalized identities have different experiences working at MDRC than their more privileged peers. We have to look no further than the alarming number of Black staff who have left MDRC, a sign of the ways that our workplace has not served them as well as it has served white staff. We want all MDRC employees, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender, job title, or sexual orientation to feel like their contributions are valued, heard, and respected.
Despite MDRC’s pride in our research methods, we know that we have failed thus far to actively root out the racism and other forms of discrimination embedded in our research practices. Through a broad recognition of a need to improve, we now have groups like the Equity Work Group (EWG), which identifies ways for MDRC to embed equity into our projects throughout the cycle. However, the recommendations from the EWG alone have had little change in the way we do our research. Many projects run their course without ever discussing the assumptions embedded in the work. Moreover, the work of having these discussions often falls to more junior staff who must push against recalcitrant senior leaders. We have found that our senior leaders, a group that is far less diverse than our organization as a whole, are more worried about straying from the status quo than about taking bold steps to change our research practices.
We are not alone in striving to be equitable researchers or to create a more just workplace. Other research organizations have leveraged their unions to formally embed equity work into the research production process.
The Brookings Institute union was motivated by the opportunity to create more space for equity work in their organization. In particular, they hope to hire a chief diversity officer and establish a budget and timecodes for DEI activities in their workplace.
Among their many stated priorities, the Urban Institute union committed to establish formal institutional supports for marginalized workers as well as examine the organization’s funding principles, fundraising strategies, and investment priorities as they relate to advancing racial progress. They also aim to adjust their research methods to reduce extractive research methods, end the tokenization of Urban staff, and include and compensate community members in our work.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities union instituted racial identity caucuses and discussions about racial equity in their workplace through their contract negotiation process.
There are many opportunities for us to commit ourselves to remaking our workplace and our research processes in a more equitable and inclusive manner through our union. Should we agree that this is a priority, we could follow in these organizations’ footsteps at MDRC.
This list is non-exhaustive – it simply includes some things that unions at other workplaces have done, issues that drive us as MDRCers, and things we’ve heard from you. As you read this list, you should ask yourself: Do any of these topics resonate with me? What new ideas popped into my head from reading this? What did I expect to see on this list that is missing?
As we move closer to bargaining, we can begin discussing our priorities in more detail through bargaining surveys, union meetings, and one-on-one communication with organizing committee members.
Through a union, we have a tremendous opportunity to build and shape our work and improve our workplace, collectively.