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The wave of union organizing among prominent nonprofits over the past three years has increasingly forced the industry to begin aligning its labor practices with its progressive reputation. But an ongoing effort to unionize the Audubon Society shows that the battle is still very much ongoing.
In March, news broke of a union drive inside Audubon, the century-old bird-focused nonprofit whose reach spans the country. By the time it became public, the organizing had already been going on for nearly a year. Staffers say that two brutal rounds of layoffs last year — particularly one that struck on Earth Day 2020 — made them realize that it was time to build a safety net. “It was an incredibly painful experience to see people who loved this organization, who were so dedicated to this organization, be let go with almost no warning,” says Maddox Wolfe, an Audubon campaign manager. “That was a real galvanizing moment for Audubon employees, because it really underscored just how precarious our jobs are… and that was only heightened by the pandemic.”
Shortly afterward, employees began internal conversations at different offices across the country. Wolfe says that one of the strongest initial motivations was to change the culture of the institution itself. “I have had the experience that Audubon is a very top down and opaque organization,” they say. “It’s very difficult to have a true and meaningful voice as an employee at Audubon.”
Audubon’s management problems were more intense than usual. Late last year, Politico reported on an internal backlash by employees alleging that the organization “maintains a culture of retaliation, fear and antagonism toward women and people of color.” A subsequent report by an outside law firm substantiated some of the allegations, leading to the April 20 resignation of David Yarnold, who had been Audubon’s CEO for the past 11 years. Yarnold was replaced by Dr. Elizabeth Gray, a scientist who is the first female CEO in the organization’s history.
The union drive, which employees are conducting with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), has had to navigate all of this institutional turmoil. When news broke of the organizing, staffers asked Audubon to commit to remain neutral. That request was denied, and Audubon hired Littler Mendelson, a notorious anti-union law firm. Employees say that they have not had direct contact with consultants from Littler, nor have they been subjected to large-scale mandatory anti-union meetings at work, commonly known as “captive audience meetings.” But they do say that managers at Audubon “told employees that they cannot discuss the organizing drive with their co-workers and directed some employees to remove their signatures from a statement in support of the union,” which led CWA to file an unfair labor practice charge against Audubon in March.
Now, events are coming to a head. On May 7, staffers formally asked Audubon to voluntarily recognize their union. (The unit includes nearly 400 employees at offices that quite literally span the country, from Maine to Alaska. Workers say that a majority of them have signed union cards, although they will not disclose the exact number.) Last Friday, Audubon gave them their answer: no.
“I have given this request serious and thoughtful consideration. Of all the factors I considered, most important to me was ensuring that every employee has a voice and that each and every employee who will be affected by this decision has the right to exercise that voice by indicating support or a lack of support for the union,” Elizabeth Gray wrote in a message to the union. “Therefore, I have decided that rather than management voluntarily recognizing the union, we will instead honor the outcome of an election where all employees who have a stake in this question can make the choice for themselves. I believe a fair, open, democratic election is the only way to ensure every voice is heard.” Gray also wrote that Audubon will “remain neutral throughout the voting process.”
The failure to voluntarily recognize the union came as a disappointment — particularly after unionizing employees had met with Gray and read her a statement explaining their request for recognition. Shyamlee Patel, an Audubon finance associate who was in that meeting, said Gray did not make any commitments, but seemed open and pleasant, while guarded. The organization’s argument for a “democratic election,” Patel says, is a canard. “We’ve already engaged in a democratic process. The majority of us have signed cards,” she says. “The democratic process has occurred.”
Patel points out that just last week, the ACLU, a “peer organization,” voluntarily recognized its own staffers’ union. Other similar nonprofits, like the Sierra Club and Sunrise Movement, already have staff unions.
Pedro Hernandez worked at other environmental justice nonprofits without unions before joining Audubon as an outreach and engagement manager a year and a half ago. “I’ve seen that there’s a lot of good missions out there, but also workers’ conditions in those organizations are important to fulfilling the mission,” he says. “Workers like myself and my colleagues who are organizing the union are the reason Audubon is able to have its profile, and the reason it’s able to fundraise.”
Despite Audubon’s refusal to recognize the union without an election, the broader outlook for the union seems promising. The unpopular Yarnold has left; Gray, the new CEO, has pledged, at least, neutrality; and the industry at large is rapidly trending towards unions in the workplace becoming a standard. Staffers will not reveal their plans in the event the battle to get certified turns ugly, but Hernandez hints at the unit’s broad capabilities for action.
“Audubon’s most talented staff are part of the union — campaign organizers, government relations folks, admin folks, social media folks. So we have a lot of capacity to organize,” he says. “It is not off the table for us to escalate if needed.”
Employees say that priorities for their first contract include diversity, pay equity, and improving career development pathways and transparency between staff and management. And even though their union campaign is still dragging on after more than a year, they are bolstered by the knowledge that they can now claim to be a part of the labor movement.
“We started our campaign because of internal issues that we were experiencing at Audubon,” Maddox Wolfe says. “But we are now a part of this national moment that’s happening with unions.”
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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. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.