Defenders of Wildlife staff form union

By Jeremy P. Jacobs | 07/08/2021 12:29 PM EST

A recent audit found a pervasive

A recent audit found a pervasive "culture of fear" for employees at environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. Christina @ wocintechchat.com/Unsplash

Following a series of workplace complaints and an external audit that found a "culture of fear" at environmental advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, employees there told management today that they have formed a union.

In a letter obtained by E&E News, the organizers asked CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark to voluntarily recognize their effort, stating that they have the support of three-quarters of eligible staff.

"We believe that authentic input and dynamic growth can only occur when every voice is represented," they wrote. "We are proud to work at Defenders of Wildlife, and are eager to partner with you to build a stronger organization together."

The "Defenders United" campaign comes after complaints over how the nonprofit has handled race and diversity issues, among other workplace problems. They are seeking to be represented by the Washington-based Office and Professional Employees International Union, Local 2.

Clark, in an emailed statement, said "staff are the heart and soul of our organization."

"Earlier today, we received a request for voluntary recognition from a union seeking to represent some of Defenders’ employees," she added. "We are taking this request seriously and are considering what the right path is for Defenders going forward to ensure all employees’ voices are heard."

In an email to the organizers provided to E&E News, however, Clark said Defenders "will not voluntarily recognize Defenders United as the employees’ exclusive bargaining agent at this time."

She indicated Defenders would prefer that the organizers pursue a secret ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a process that usually takes at least 45 days to begin.

"We insist that the Union file a representation petition with the NLRB if it wishes to further proceed," Clark said.

Defenders of Wildlife, which was founded in 1947, is one of the country’s oldest environmental groups and focuses on species and habitat conservation, frequently filing lawsuits challenging agency regulations and policies.

Organizers identified about 100 union-eligible employees at the organization, located across the country.

Shayna Steingard, one of the organizers, said a variety of issues have come up in the union building effort. In addition to diversity and race concerns, she said, there has been a high employee turnover rate, and staff want a stronger seat at the table in negotiations with management.

"I love Defenders. I love working for the organization," said Steingard, who has worked at the group for about two years as a renewable energy and wildlife policy analyst. "There are ways to make it better, retain more staff and reduce the brain drain."

She added: "We absolutely want more meaningful engagement with the CEO, with the board, with upper levels of management."

E&E News reported in May that supervisors at the nonprofit had sent multiple emails to senior staff and its board beginning in March, and they have been disappointed in the leadership team’s response.

Specifically, they highlighted an external audit by the Avarna Group, a consulting firm dedicated to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) issues, that found a "culture of fear."

"When asked who staff were afraid of," the group found, "the primary source of fear was not immediate supervisors, but specific individuals on the Executive Team, including the CEO."

Clark joined Defenders in 2004. She previously led the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton administration.

Avarna Group also concluded there was a "lack of transparency," "lack of accountability" and "lack of trust" in human resources. And it found the problems were most pronounced for employees who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, or BIPOC.

Avarna later terminated its relationship with Defenders.

Clark said then in a statement that Defenders is "deeply committed to fostering a positive, inclusive and safe workplace where all voices are heard."

She also pointed to recent changes, including efforts to boost DEIJ efforts and a "Culture Working Group" (Greenwire, May 24).

The Defenders United effort is separate from the earlier emails, which came from supervisors who by definition are not eligible for the union. But both seek to address similar issues.

The union effort follows an organizing trend among environmental groups, especially as they have sought to address long-standing problems surrounding race and diversity following the killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans last year (Greenwire, June 5, 2020).

Several groups, including the Sierra Club, 350.org and Greenpeace, have formed unions and collective bargaining units recognized by management.

Employees at the National Audubon Society have also sought to unionize following a series of mishandled diversity trainings and layoffs last year that ultimately led to CEO David Yarnold leaving the organization.

But Audubon’s management has not voluntarily recognized the effort. It has said it will support the results of a formal election run by the NLRB, leading to a tense standoff with organizers (Greenwire, July 1).

Steingard of Defenders United said she hopes to avoid that process, but they are prepared to go to the NLRB.

"One of the best things they can do … is voluntarily recognizing us," she said. "That would be a great way of showing they see us, they hear us and they also want us to have a seat at the table."