Green group inks union contract after internal conflict

By Robin Bravender | 08/01/2023 04:23 PM EDT

Management and the employee union at the Center for Biological Diversity announced the completion of their first collective bargaining agreement.

Center for Biological Diversity attorney dressed as a polar bear in 2016.

A Center for Biological Diversity attorney dressed as a polar bear in 2016. The center works to protect endangered species. Robin Bravender

The Center for Biological Diversity and its employee union announced the ratification of their first collective bargaining agreement Tuesday, more than two years after staff unionized.

The conservation group’s organization and union representatives celebrated the contract, which followed at-times contentious internal negotiations that included sparring among staff over which union would represent the group’s employees.

“It’s quite an accomplishment to get to a first contract. It’s never an easy process,” said Gaby Sarri-Tobar, a member of the Center for Biological Diversity’s employee union bargaining committee. “It’s a huge step for workers at the center, for the center as an organization and the work we do to save life on Earth.”


The Center for Biological Diversity — which has about 180 staffers — is among the many national environmental groups that have unionized in recent years. Contract negotiations are still ongoing in some of those groups.

The new agreement, which takes effect Tuesday, includes codifying benefits and flexible work arrangements for staff, increasing standard raises, increasing paid time off and boosting starting salaries for lower-paid staff, according to a joint release sent out by Kierán Suckling, the group’s executive director, and the Workers for Biological Diversity Bargaining Committee.

Most of the agreement codifies existing practices, Suckling said Tuesday in an interview. Among the new benefits, he said, is a company holiday to celebrate Endangered Species Day, which is celebrated on the third Friday in May.

The company holiday takes place the following Monday. “What we wanted to indicate is on the actual Endangered Species Day, we should be working for endangered species,” Suckling said.

The Center for Biological Diversity announced in August 2021 that it was recognizing the new employee union following a card count showing that 68 percent of the eligible workers supported joining.

One sticking point, Suckling said Tuesday, was over which union represented the organization’s staff. The Center for Biological Diversity’s staff unionized with the Communications Workers of America in 2021.

“A lot of staff don’t like CWA because it’s a police union,” Suckling said Tuesday. “They didn’t want to be in a police union; they wanted to be in a different union, and they asked the organizers, ‘Hey, can we dump CWA and go with a different union?’”

The CWA represents an assortment of workers, from people in journalism to telecommunications workers to public-sector employees like police officers.

A compromise enables existing employees at the organization who aren’t working in right-to-work states and object to paying fees to CWA to instead pay an equivalent amount of money to a fund that will give out grants to environmental and social justice groups, Suckling said.

There was “quite a bit of conflict” when the bargaining union was first forming, Suckling said, “so much so that a group of the bargaining unit petitioned to decertify the union at one point and they had to go through a second vote.”

He said there was “very little conflict between the union and management” throughout the process.

Sarri-Tobar said the Workers for Biological Diversity sees this as “an opportunity to move CWA, and I think they’ve shown a lot of progress with the other organizations that they’ve started unionizing with — and really focusing on nonprofits and environmental nonprofits, social justice nonprofits. That’s been a clear focus for them.”