Unionizing showdown bedevils Audubon

By Jeremy P. Jacobs | 03/17/2021 01:31 PM EDT

Employees at the National Audubon Society are organizing after allegations of widespread workplace problems, including two rounds of layoffs, a mishandled diversity training, and the resignations of two top equity and inclusion officials.

Staff at the National Audubon Society, one of the nation's leading conservation groups, are attempting to unionize.

Staff at the National Audubon Society, one of the nation's leading conservation groups, are attempting to unionize. Dave Reede/Newscom

As President Biden touts union jobs as central to America’s clean energy future, a fight over unionizing has broken out at one of the country’s leading conservation groups.

Employees at the National Audubon Society are organizing after allegations of widespread workplace problems, including two rounds of layoffs, a mishandled diversity training, and the resignations of two top equity and inclusion officials.

They say they are meeting sharp resistance from the group’s management, which has hired one of the country’s most well-known union-busting firms.


Audubon strongly disagrees with that characterization, saying that it does not oppose the effort and that the firm, Littler Mendelson PC, was hired to provide advice to managers to stay out of the organizers’ way — not to break them up.

But tensions between the organizers, who have rallied under an "Audubon for All" banner, and management nevertheless seem to have quickly reached a boil. They claim Audubon management is deploying some of Littler’s tactics, and they filed a complaint this week with the National Labor Relations Board alleging Audubon’s management is improperly meddling in their organizing effort.

Maddox Wolfe, a campaign manager in Washington, said the organizers want to unionize because recent developments are preventing them from carrying out their work.

"We are incredibly dedicated to this mission, and that’s why we are fighting for our union," Wolfe said. "We feel like we are being prevented from serving the mission because of this internal chaos and breakdowns."

The organizers are seeking to join the Communications Workers of America, or CWA, an international union with more than 500,000 members spanning several sectors, including environmental nonprofits.

They are calling for a larger role in decisionmaking, pay standards, and inclusive and equitable hiring practices, among other demands.

More specifically, they want management to recognize that if and when they reach a majority of employees, collective bargaining will take place. More than 125 Audubon employees have signed the petition, they say. Audubon currently has 660 employees, and the group believes 400 are eligible to unionize.

In an emailed statement, Audubon said it is "devoted to providing a workplace in which all our employees feel respected, valued, and empowered."

"We respect the legal right of workers to make a case for forming a union, and appreciate employees’ commitment to Audubon’s work and workplace," the statement said. "Whether or not employees elect to form a union, we will always strive to be an ‘Audubon for All’ and we are grateful to our employees for their phenomenal work helping protect birds and the places they need."

Audubon also provided E&E News with guidance it sent to managers instructing them to stay neutral.

But the organizers said Audubon is resisting, marking a significant divide with several other major environmental groups that have recently unionized, including the Sierra Club, the Sunrise Movement, Greenpeace and 350.org.

And it comes as Biden has sought to establish his administration as the most pro-union in decades, especially on infrastructure and clean energy (Energywire, March 17).

Biden recently weighed in on Amazon.com Inc. workers’ current effort to organize in Bessemer, Ala.

"Unions put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field," he said in a video tweet. "The choice to join a union is up to the workers — full stop. Full stop. … There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda."

Audubon insisted that Littler is not advising the organization on how to combat the unionizing effort. But Littler’s website states that’s one of its specialties, and a handbook from the firm obtained by E&E News lays out multiple strategies for fighting unionization efforts.

"Our deep experience in representing management serves as a strong counterpoint to the world’s most powerful labor organizations," its website states. "We guide companies in developing and initiating strategies that lawfully avoid unions or effectively respond to unconventional corporate campaigns."

Union officials, including from CWA, said Audubon is setting itself apart at the wrong time.

"They are on an island," said Yonah Camacho Diamond, an organizing coordinator at CWA, "and not an island you want to be on."

Staff complaints

Like many major environmental groups forced to reckon with problematic histories on race, the 600,000-member National Audubon Society has struggled with diversity, equity and inclusion (Greenwire, June 5, 2020).

Audubon is dedicated to birds and habitat conservation, and its efforts in the historically Black community of Turkey Creek, Miss., were lampooned by Comedy Central’s "The Daily Show" in 2011. The city, founded by formerly enslaved people, has long fought development and been considered an environmental justice community.

It found an ally in Audubon, which helped it secure conservation for bird habitat. Then, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area in 2005, Audubon was criticized in the segment for focusing on birds — not the damage done to the community.

"So after Hurricane Katrina, you got people to come out and build homes …" said comedian Wyatt Cenac.

"For birds," Audubon’s Mark LaSalle responded.

More recently, Politico reported in November that Audubon was reeling from a series of workplace complaints, including an internal survey that revealed worker dissatisfaction, particularly among workers of color and the LGBTQ community.

President and CEO David Yarnold’s handling of the anonymous survey, including allegedly asking for the names of participants, led to the October resignation of one senior diversity specialist, Devon Trotter. Another official, Deeohn Ferris, left the previous March and said she was forced out.

Those developments coincided with two rounds of layoffs, in which 108 employees were let go. One round took place last June, and another, larger round was announced on Earth Day last April.

"For many of us," Wolfe said, "that was an incredible turning point and motivation factor for this because instead of listening to employees’ ideas about cost-saving measures, we were completely shut out of that decision."

Audubon did not make Yarnold available for an interview. But it did provide staff emails announcing the layoffs, which cited financial uncertainties and other complications stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first round, announced on April 22, applied to 64 staffers at the group’s nature centers that were forced to close due to the pandemic.

Yarnold said the group intended to bring the employees back, and, according to a spokesperson, that process has already started.

Then, in June, the group let go another 44 employees who "range from vice presidents to front-line staff," Yarnold said.

He attributed the cuts to a nearly $25 million loss in revenue in the last year.

"I know, however, that transparency does little to blunt the shock and grief we’re going to experience this week," Yarnold wrote.

He added that the group handed out "the most generous departure packages possible" and included steps the organization is taking to balance its budget, including reducing expenses, temporarily eliminating bonuses and freezing pay for those who earn more than $125,000 annually.

Few results

The group’s diversity efforts also continue to be a concern among the organizers.

Multiple people said Audubon has put an additional burden on the group’s employees of color and members of the LGBTQ community.

Others said they aren’t getting to the root of the problem.

"We’ve mentioned becoming an anti-racist organization," said Bria Wimberly, an environmental educator in Audubon’s mid-Atlantic office, "but the actions Audubon has been giving to us seems more performative than actually solving the problems."

Pedro Hernández, outreach and engagement program manager for climate policies in California, put it another way: "Trying to work through the systems Audubon has provided," he said, "has yielded very little results for us."

Audubon has hired a new chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer, Jamaal Nelson, who started March 1.

He said in an email that Audubon has a multifaceted program that includes education and training, renewing a relationship with environmental justice leaders, launching a program for white allyship, and the creation of a group for Indigenous employees and employees of color to unpack issues at the organization.

"Many white staff are grappling with how to be an ally," Nelson said, "and we will be holding space for them to challenge themselves to become legitimate action-taking allies."

Union organizers sought to emphasize how much they value their jobs and Audubon’s mission. They vowed to forge ahead and asked Audubon to disengage from the anti-union firm Littler and recognize a union when they’ve collected enough signatures.

"Right now, we are all feeling like we’re under the thumb completely and don’t have any power in the organization," said Nic Dixon, an outreach associate in Baton Rouge, La. "We are seeking to grab that back."