The Animal Legal Defense Fund Is Busting Its Union With a Smile
A nonstop anti-union campaign comes with assurances that management is “really progressive”
The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) is a major nonprofit that boasts of its more than 40 years of “tireless pursuit of justice for animals.” When it comes to the pursuit of justice for working humans, however, its own employees say that it is badly failing the test.
In mid-December, ALDF’s employees told the organization’s management that they intended to unionize with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, a division of the IFPTE. They presented signed union cards representing a “super majority” of the 54-person staff, and asked for the ALDF to voluntarily recognize their union. Such voluntary recognition has become standard in the nonprofit world — the NPEU says that of the 35 nonprofits it’s organized, only two have refused to recognize their unions.
One of those two is the ALDF. According to employees and the NPEU, the ALDF responded to the news of the union drive by hiring the anti-union law firm Ogletree Deakins and embarking on a union-busting campaign that is now in full swing. That campaign has centered on an ongoing series of “captive audience meetings” in which managers gather employees in small groups to try to persuade them not to unionize, a tactic common among corporations intent on intimidating and misleading workers who seek to organize.
An ALDF employee who supports the union, and who asked not to be identified due to fear of retaliation at work, said that the union drive came about because of the sort of disillusionment common in the nonprofit world, where people find that what they had seen as a “dream job” actually is nothing of the sort. After the killing of George Floyd, the staff’s dissatisfaction with what they saw as the organization’s “lukewarm, half-ass” response — as well as a perception of unfair pay rates, and inequitable treatment by managers — led directly to the desire to unionize in order to have a stronger voice in the workplace. “The people who control most of these [animal rights] organizations are largely white, and largely wealthy,” and uninterested in scrutinizing the flaws of ALDF itself, the employee said. “This is a huge problem for us. We’re a legal organization, so justice is paramount among our concerns… They think of us as being expendable because we have such coveted jobs.”
The ALDF did not respond to a request for comment from its management.
The organizing drive gathered steam through the summer, working in tandem with the NPEU, which has led an explosion of organizing among nonprofits over the past two years. The employee says that it became clear that management knew about the drive by late October, so the unit made sure to present a large majority of signed union cards in December to make it “unambiguous that this is what people want.” Nevertheless, just before Christmas, management called a meeting and told everyone they would not be recognizing the union.
Employees are upset that ALDF chose to hire Ogletree Deakins, the same anti-union firm that the ACLU of Kansas hired last year to fight its own employee organizing drive — particularly because the firm works with clients in industrial agriculture, which employees see as being antithetical to ALDF’s mission. Though firms like Ogletree Deakins typically work to ensure that the employer’s anti-union campaign is as scary as possible while still following the letter of the law, they are not immune from comedy; ALDF employees found out about the firm’s involvement when a manager accidentally CC’d staffers on an email with an Ogletree attorney discussing details of an anti-union meeting.
“Anything short of recognizing your staff union in this political environment is union busting,” says Kayla Blado, the president of NPEU. “Management there doesn’t want to cede power to workers. They are using pretty infamous union busting tactics, the same things you see at big companies.” Blado says that the ALDF is not only forcing its employees to file for an NLRB election in order to certify their union — a process which will likely take months — it is also trying to challenge the size of the union, arguing to the NLRB that the number of eligible employees should be cut by a full two-thirds, which Blado calls “insulting.”
Employees at ALDF shared with In These Times notes that they took during three separate captive audience meetings with different managers. They paint a picture of a nonprofit using a standard anti-union playbook that would not be out of place at Walmart or an Amazon warehouse: a mix of encouraging comments about how management values employees’ opinions and that a union is not necessary to communicate with them directly, along with fearmongering statements painting the union as a predatory outside entity that is only out for dues money. Managers alternate between insisting that they want employees to speak up and change the organization from within, disparaging the NPEU, and warning that forcing the ALDF into bargaining with the union does not mean that employees will actually make any gains. One meeting even features the highest form of the anti-union meeting genre — the assurances that the people delivering the anti-union message are, in fact, strong believers in unions.
At one point, a manager describes the ALDF’s outside attorney as “a really liberal blue guy,” adding, “He’s a management-side attorney, no doubt about it, but he’s just not a union-buster.” At another point, ALDF executive director Stephen Wells, who is leading the group’s decision to fight against the union, is described as “a really pro-union guy.”
“It’s not like he’s an anti-union person,” the speaker says of Wells. “He’s really liberal, he’s really progressive.”
Depending on how long it takes to settle legal arguments at the NLRB and schedule a final vote, workers could be in for another two months or more of these sorts of meetings. Still, the ALDF employee says that the union-busting has not changed any minds, and is confident that the union will win. “It’s making people madder and more dedicated,” the employee says. “This is an act of love for this organization.”
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.