‘Hypocritical’: environmental groups blocking union efforts, US workers say

<span>Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Workers at some of the top environmental organizations in the US are calling out their managers as “incredibly hypocritical” as they argue the progressive non-profits are fighting workers’ efforts to unionize.

A wave of unionization efforts has swept the non-profit sector as part of a renewed national enthusiasm for unionization. Shortly into the Covid-19 pandemic, workers at 350.org, Sunrise Movement, the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace USA, the Public Interest Network and the Center for Biological Diversity unionized.

Related: ‘It can be scary’: how corporate America is hitting back against unions

But workers at many of these organizations say they have experienced aggressive opposition and alleged retaliation in the lead-up to unionizing and through bargaining efforts for a first union contract.

Defenders of Wildlife has fought unionization since the campaign went public, according to workers, and has continued to do so through bargaining. The organization, which works to protect all native animals and plants throughout North America, rejected a request to voluntarily recognize the union, but workers successfully won a union election in September 2021 with a vote of 70 to five to join the Office and Professional Employees Union Local 2.

One of the allegations the non-profit faces is that it fired employee Erica Prather in retaliation for her role in the union campaign.

Prather was fired in February 2022 and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a complaint on her behalf, finding merit in the charge, which is expected to be adjudicated in the coming weeks.

“Defenders’ goal with this isn’t to do the right thing. They could have even looked like the hero and just apologized and reinstated me,” said Prather.

She argued the union drive was sparked by how management treats employees and a poor workplace culture that has driven high turnover.

“Being able to put something on a piece of paper, to make yourself look good to funders is something different than living it and living it means you’re gonna have to let workers have some autonomy,” Prather said. “All the time, the money, the labor, could be fighting the climate crisis and the ecological crisis, which is what we’re supposed to do. It’s been just all that time, whether it’s this trial or bargaining, like, what are you actually doing this work for?”

A current employee at Defenders of Wildlife and member of the bargaining committee who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation claimed the organization has refused to bargain with the union.

The NLRB has issued a complaint against Defenders of Wildlife for its refusal to bargain in good faith with the union.

“We have now had about seven proposals on the table and the only thing that is tentatively agreed upon is the preamble, which is a paragraph long and has nothing whatsoever controversial in it,” the worker said. “My opinion as a union member is because they have no interest in giving us anything.”

Defenders of Wildlife did not comment on turnover or specific allegations of retaliation, citing privacy concerns around personnel. It denied allegations of discrimination or retaliation and claimed they’re bargaining in good faith.

“Like many organizations, we also recognize that there is more work to do. We are committed to supporting our staff and advancing diversity, equity and inclusion throughout our organization and the conservation movement,” said a spokesperson for Defenders of Wildlife. “We are listening to staff feedback and working to make improvements that enhance our workplace and advance Defenders’ important conservation work.”

We have now had about seven proposals on the table and the only thing that is tentatively agreed upon is the preamble

Defenders of Wildlife employee

Workers at the National Audubon Society successfully unionized in 2021 with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), but have claimed significant union opposition from management through unionization and bargaining. At 350.org, workers have accused the environmental non-profit of retaliating against workers for unionizing.

Other non-profits have sought to overturn union victories. At the Center for Biological Diversity, Kieran Suckling, co-founder and executive director, pushed for an effort to decertify the union, in a staff-wide email obtained by the Guardian entitled “Vote to free the center from the CWA.”

“Decertifying CWA will allow everyone at the center – from the bargaining unit, to managers, to the executive team – to regroup and craft a healing way forward,” Suckling wrote. “CWA has brought unprecedented divisiveness, insecurity and hostility to the Center.”

The decertification election ultimately failed in October 2022.

After 68% of workers signed cards to join the CWA at Center for Biological Diversity the non-profit voluntarily recognized the union in 2021. Staff say that workers close to management then began criticizing the union and the decision to unionize on staff-wide listservs. They said they felt unable to push back for fear of being targeted, and that this animosity has continued through bargaining.

“The tensions are very high. One thing leadership is trying to do is to make sure a contract never comes to fruition. They seem to push back on everything the bargaining committee is seeking to win,” said one worker who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “Leadership wants to look like they’re progressive, but don’t want to release the reins.”

Another worker at the Center for Biological Diversity said the union campaign was driven by a desire to improve working conditions and support the important work the group does, including addressing pay inequities, more job security and the lack of a system to properly address grievances.

“Immediately there was a lot of backlash of this very one-sided attack on the unionization process, nitpicking, wild allegations and grandstanding on the side of management,” they said. “Our executive director has a bad case of founder’s syndrome, with weird power plays, actions not aligning with the values that upper management says they have, and power-tripping.”

They argued management and some workers aligning with management against the union have mischaracterized union proposals, are pushing to make union dues voluntary, and revolved union opposition around “strawman” arguments that the CWA is not progressive enough as a national union, while purporting to not be anti-union.

“They can’t get over the fact that something significant at the Center isn’t being controlled by them,” the worker added. “The tears haven’t stopped flowing and they have no self-awareness of how entitled they’re coming off because they’re so used to being centered all the time.”

Suckling said in an email that “90% of the union controversy at the Center has been within the bargaining unit, not between management and the union”.

“The Center is, and has always been, pro-union and pro-unionization,” he added, claiming the primary reason behind opposition to CWA is the union’s inclusion of police officer unions. He denied allegations of stoking and supporting union opposition. “We had hoped that selecting a new or independent union would resolve the intense inter-bargaining unit conflicts. A majority (56%) of the unit members, however, believed the criticisms were not sufficient reason to start unionization over and voted to instead remain with CWA. We accept that without question and will continue to seek resolution of the conflicts with this framework.”

They did not comment on an unfair labor practice charge that workers allege was settled with the employee leaving the organization.

At the Public Interest Network, which operates and supports numerous environmental organizations throughout the US, workers launched a union campaign in 2021 and received voluntary recognition in March 2022 with OPEIU Local 2. But workers say the organization has dragged out bargaining a first contract and pushed out workers involved in organizing.

Zachary Barber, a field organizer for PennEnvironment, part of the Public Interest Network, claimed the organization has repeatedly rejected proposals in bargaining and recently went to arbitration to try to limit the size of the bargaining unit, which the union won. The union has filed several unfair labor practice charges against the organization, including allegations of retaliation against workers and making unilateral changes to employment without bargaining.

“We’ve been told directly by senior members in leadership that if we don’t agree with the way they’re running the organization that we should just leave,” said Barber. “Generally the point of the union is giving people the ability to come together and have a voice in their workplace, and that’s the same thing we fight for every day as a grassroots organization.”

Zach Szlezinger worked at the Public Interest Network as a higher education associate before he claims he was pushed out in Summer 2022 in retaliation for his heavy involvement in the union campaign as a bargaining committee member.

I had proven myself in the job and it was clearly retaliation from management

Zach Szlezinger

“I was told that, with no reasoning, that there’s no place for me this year, or in the future,” he said. “It was very abnormal. I had proven myself in the job and it was clearly retaliation from management.”

“We have to acknowledge how incredibly hypocritical it is. It’s almost crazy that an organization that fights for all of this could be so clearly anti-union and take these kinds of harmful actions,” added Szlezinger. “I know that unions are going to strengthen the environmental movement, and they’re the only way to bring the movement into the future that’s actually in touch with the problems that we’re facing today.”

The Public Interest Network did not comment on Szlezinger’s firing, unfair labor practice charges directly, or alleged comments made to workers by management. A spokesperson said in an email that after voluntarily recognizing the union, “we have negotiated in good faith since then in a general atmosphere of collegiality among all participants. Indeed, we have responded to all of the union’s proposals and made counter-proposals to many of them, as well as initiating some proposals ourselves. We are waiting on the union to respond to many of our proposals.”

  • This article was amended on 3 February 2023. The lead photograph was changed to a more relevant image.