Meet Hil O’Connell, the Guild’s newest organizer

I’m thrilled to announce that Hil O’Connell has joined our union as the latest organizer in the Guild! Before joining us on staff, Hil was a TNG member organizer — part of a program with dozens of Guild activists who help mobilize current members and organize new ones. They were also part of the successful effort to unionize AccessMatters, a nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia that promotes reproductive and sexual health. 

I talked with Hil and we wanted to share our conversation so you could get to know them.

You’re based in Philly – did you grow up there?

I grew up in Delaware County, right outside Philly! I very clearly do not say I’m from Philly – that cred is reserved for people who grew up in the city. (laughs) I’m from the suburbs of Philly. I was away for four years for college, then I moved to Philly when I graduated and have been here for the last eight years with no plans to leave. 

When did you first become an activist? 

Depending on who you ask, I guess you could say I became an activist as soon as I emerged from the womb! (laughs) I never threw tantrums, but I’ve always been an agitator. The refrain I heard as a child was, “Stop being so defensive.” 

I was a kid who was pretty comfortable with conflict. I have very early memories of standing up for friends on the playground, you know? And I remember vividly a conversation in sixth grade, during the early days of the Iraq war, where I had a knock-down argument with someone in my middle school – she was praising Bush Jr. for his anti-choice views and talking about how abortion was “killing innocent babies,” and I remember yelling back, “What about all the children dying right now because we’re fighting an unjust war?” That same year, I got cornered and yelled at by a shop teacher in the lunchroom, in front of all my friends, for refusing to stand for the pledge of allegiance, also in protest of the war in Iraq. These were small but formative moments in my nascent organizing consciousness – sure, being yelled at isn’t fun, but that pushback only solidified my conviction.

I started building out a few different organizations to raise money for a whole range of causes in late childhood, but with a very limited perspective. This wasn’t organizing, or even really activism, but the kind of suburban bake sale philanthropy that draws very clear lines between “us” (the people raising money, who are largely white and class-privileged) and “them” (the subjects of the fundraising, always pictured as “unable to help themselves”). 

It wasn’t until early college where my conciousness really shifted, coinciding with me coming out as queer, and a few years later as transgender. I dove deep into queer and trans organizing on campus: fighting for inclusion in particular academic and extracurricular programs, fighting (successfully) to get full coverage for queer and trans healthcare, including gender-affirming care, in the student health plans, organizing trainings and workshops and lectures and dances and other opportunities for our community to come together.

When I graduated undergrad, a group of people I organized with on campus all moved to Philly at the same time. We formed a grassroots fundraising collective and started hosting potluck get-togethers open to the whole Philly community to learn about and support local organizations that were underfunded. All kinds of organizations: our local abortion fund, a sex worker harm reduction collective, the annual March to End Rape Culture, a Black queer collective leading organizing campaigns in the deep South, and more.

And that’s when I got sick! A lot of my labor consciousness came out of becoming chronically ill and disabled in my early 20s. In my first job, becoming a disabled worker was a rough adjustment. I became very aware very quickly that nobody was looking out for my well-being: not HR, not management, not the healthcare industry at large. That’s when my consciousness crystalized. As soon as my body and mind were no longer a perfectly exploitable financial resource for my organization, that’s how it changed. I was immediately treated as “less than.”

Do you want to talk more about the importance of identifying as a disabled person?

Finding my power as a disabled person, and a disabled worker, is definitely something that’s incredibly important to me, and to understanding where I’m coming from. I approach organizing with a disability justice lens, which means I pay deep and close attention to the ways in which disabled, chronically ill, mentally ill, and otherwise sick are (or more often, are not) centered as leaders in our movement-building. It means working with my comrades to eliminate words like “lazy” from our organizing vocabulary, and to better understand the many and varied impacts of trauma on Guild members and staff alike. As an educator who trained thousands of clinical care professionals on inclusive and affirming healthcare in my nonprofit career, I am wildly passionate about accessible, trauma-informed education that meets participants where they are. This, too, is disability justice.

I also came to organized labor from the movement for universal healthcare, which I became very involved with after I became sick and immediately faced cascading medical costs and accumulating debt. My other organizing home was Put People First PA, which is one of the seed organizations for the national Poor People’s Campaign. PPF has, for years, run a long-term campaign for universal healthcare in Pennsylvania, part of a larger mission to mobilize and connect working class people across the state to fight for economic justice. Before I began organizing my own union at AccessMatters, I spent a few years doing a lot of campaign work at Put People First. Developing campaign plans, talking through strategy, power mapping, and also (my favorite) helping members build their organizing skills. That’s when I first started running workshops on organizing skills like strategic research, or one-on-one conversations, or having a meeting with a legislator. 

The only reason I stopped being involved with PPF was because we needed a union in my workplace, and there’s only so many hours in the day! In the year leading up to our union drive, those of us who became the Organizing Committee had been involved in some really challenging attempts at racial equity organizing through a management-approved “change team” — but every effort we made to create change was fully and aggressively sabotaged by management. When we asked for funding to do the work, our CEO offered us part of her year-end bonus, and we were supposed to say “thank you” and be fine with that. The sabotage of our efforts left people in a rough place, and really galvanized us to say, “OK, let’s get on the phone with The NewsGuild.”

Talk about the nonprofit worker’s life and how they’re treated by management.

I used to think the nonprofit sector was unique in the ways it exploits workers, and it wasn’t until I started working on building a union I realized how not unique things were – exploitation is exploitation, even if the structures look different. I think that’s common for anyone doing union organizing. But in the nonprofit sector, and especially the nonprofit sexual and reproductive health sector, it’s all the meme “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss.” (laughs) Now that’s not necessarily what we’d put on our union websites, but this is the way that a great deal of nonprofit management functions. Nonprofit workers are promised that our industry is “different” and that our CEOs and Executive Directors care deeply about us, and then, in the same breath, we’re told that asking for fair pay is distracting from our nonprofit missions, that any discrimination we experience is actually “not that bad” or “not as bad” as it would be elsewhere. 

Nonprofits use the language of social justice – like equity! anti-discrimination! human rights! respect and dignity! women in leadership! – to cover up the real truth: that nonprofits exploit workers just like corporate profiteers do. They say, “we believe in racial equity,” then only hire people of color for the lowest-paid positions, with no opportunities for advancement. They say, “every person, no matter their background, deserves the chance to thrive,” then offer wages so low that staff need to take second jobs to make rent. And more!

It’s very telling that you’ll rarely hear anyone in the sector refer to the workers as “workers.” You’ll hear “employees” and “professionals,” but you won’t hear workers. To me that’s just one surface-level indicator of a larger trend, where the nonprofit sector sells itself as being different from the for-profit sector. It sells itself on treating workers differently and saying it’ll be different from any for-profit org doing the same work. And at the same time they’re saying to the workers, “You’re here because you care about the mission, and anything you do to threaten the organization (e.g. unionizing) is failing the people that you came here to serve.” I’ll never forget that in my first ever nonprofit bargaining session, management said that if the union gets in the way of the organization’s financial flexibility, then they’ll “probably have to shut down.” That threat is constantly being waved in front of people. 

So there’s this attitude that rocking the boat is a problem. That’s the fear that I hear most of all, and heard from my colleagues and other folks when we were organizing at AccessMatters. The fear is not just that they’ll fire me, the fear is often, “If we do this, how will this affect the people we serve?” It took a long time working with comrades and deepening my labor consciousness to come to the conclusion that if an organization can’t treat the workers right, then they can’t serve the community right either.

How do you fight through that fear you mentioned? 

Talking to other people! I didn’t realize until I started getting close with colleagues that we all saw that playing out. They didn’t know how bothered I was by the way they were treated, and vice versa. The way to break through the fear is to tell the truth to each other. So much of union organizing is the work of truth-telling. 

This is something that the journalism and nonprofit sectors share, and part of why the NewsGuild has been such a powerful place to build cross-sector solidarity and understanding. We do this work to tell the truth about the way the world works. Realizing that our employers are trying to prevent us from seeing and telling the truth is a powerful entry point to organizing.

It’s crucial to name the dynamics at play and refuse to play into management’s narratives. If management says, “you asking for more is a problem for the people we serve” — then what are we doing? Why are we the ones doing this work? Why are we the ones getting the grant money, if that money is going into exploiting workers? So much of this work is exposing the patterns and power dynamics at play, and really just relationship-building. Our union is built on the back of the relationships we made with each other. 

There’s also a real opportunity in the nonprofit sector to build labor consciousness off of the activist backgrounds that many workers bring to the industry. When people enter mission-driven nonprofits, we go there because we care about the issues the nonprofits address, whether those issues are racial justice, or public health, or sexual violence prevention, or electoral politics, etc. Whatever the topic may be, we’re entering with a belief that this is work worth doing. So it’s all about making the leap. Thinking, if I believe in racial justice, I have to believe that I have rights as a worker. If I believe in disability justice, I believe I have rights as a worker. 

That’s what excites me so much. There’s an Audre Lorde quote that captures this beautifully: “There’s no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.”

Through the process of organizing my nonprofit and deepening my work in the NewsGuild, the connections I see between different movements are stronger than ever. Labor justice means racial justice means disability justice means gender justice, and more. The possibility of that connection exists for every worker, whether we’re coming from a nonprofit, a media company, or somewhere else entirely. All of us have the opportunity to connect what we believe in to our rights as a worker. And what an exciting prospect for the labor movement, to grow in this direction!