More infighting at Sierra Club

By Robin Bravender | 10/13/2023 01:17 PM EDT

Sierra Club boss Ben Jealous is denying allegations of union busting and warning against efforts to sow “discord” in the organization.

Ben Jealous speaks

Ben Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club, speaks during a "Stop Dirty Banks" rally and protest on March 21 in Washington. Alex Brandon/AP

Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous denied allegations of union-busting plans Friday as he warned his team about “a small number of individuals” intent on “sowing seeds of discord among us by spreading misinformation and untruths.”

Jealous and Allison Chin, president of Sierra Club’s board of directors, each sent all-staff emails this week disputing allegations that the group’s leadership had developed a plan to wait for the expiration of a current collective bargaining agreement and then fire union members.

Their emails come after the Progressive Workers Union, which represents Sierra Club staff, filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that enforces labor law.


The complaint alleges that Sierra Club’s leadership developed and presented a plan to the group’s board of directors to delay negotiations with the union until the current collective bargaining agreement expires, “bargain in bad faith in order to push the Union to strike, then terminate all of the striking workers under the pretext of restructuring the organization.”

The union contends that Jealous and Sierra Club’s Chief Legal Officer Erica McKinley presented a plan during a board meeting “to break our union if we were to exercise our strike rights” after the union’s current contract expires Dec. 31.

“We worked carefully with our legal counsel on this matter and we have credible evidence this happened, from someone who was present,” the union said in a statement. “We believe that after the National Labor Board investigates, they will find merit to our charge and issue a complaint.”

Sierra Club leaders have denounced the allegations.

Chin wrote to the staff Thursday that someone “has falsely alleged that the chief legal officer advised the board to implement a bargaining strategy where management allows the clock to run out on the current CBA and then fire all represented employees.”

She wrote, “Let me be clear: there is no truth to this allegation. That conversation never happened. Our counsel did not — and would not — ever advise us to act unlawfully.”

Jealous repeated in his Friday email that “there is no truth to this allegation” and said there is “no truth to the latest allegation that the Chief Legal Officer and I presented a plan to the Board to ‘break’ the union.”

Jealous, who took the helm of the group early this year, said he’s working to build a strong culture inside the organization.

“Despite all of this, it remains clear that a small number of individuals are intent on sowing seeds of discord among us by spreading misinformation and untruths,” he wrote. “Nothing constructive comes from such tactics. Knowingly creating and participating in falsehoods serves no purpose other than to divide us and tear down efforts to create a strong, inclusive, and welcoming culture.”

He added, “time is too critical to the planet, and our work is too important for our community to be distracted by misinformation and scurrilous attacks that have gone on now for the better part of a year.”

This past year has been a tumultuous one for the organization.

Soon after taking over as executive director, Jealous announced staff layoffs that he said aimed to reduce the group’s budget deficit and expand the organization’s footprint in red states.

But the layoffs infuriated employees and union representatives, who said they were left out of key conversations.

As the next round of union negotiations gets underway, “we really want to get an amicable agreement,” said CJ Garcia-Linz, president of the Progressive Workers Union.

Sierra Club spokesperson Jonathon Berman said Friday in an email, “The Sierra Club has offered several hours of time for negotiations this week to which PWU leadership never made themselves available for bargaining. We are optimistic a productive and truthful conversation can occur at the bargaining table once talks begin.”