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National Audubon Society

When Environmentalists Union Bust

Audubon society hires Littler Mendelson to stop union organizing drive

Brian Young's picture
May 18, 2021

The Audubon Society is one of the oldest environmental organizations in the country. The century-old bird-focused non-profit is also entering a new dubious category as its employees accuse the organization of trying to bust their union.

The organization, which has been working since 1896 to protect birds and their habitats, is accused of hiring the infamous union busters Littler Mendelson to stop a national organizing campaign by the 400 employees who work around the country. Employees told In These Times that they were not subjected to captive audience meetings, but were told by managers that they were forbidden from talking about organizing with their co-workers, and were told to remove their signatures from a statement supporting a union effort. The workers are organizing with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). The Audubon Society disputed this claim telling E&E News that they only hired Littler Mendelson “to provide advice to managers to stay out of the organizers' way — not to break them up.” However, the CWA has filed an unfair labor practice charge against the organization over their actions.

On May 7th, even after these meetings, the staffers formally asked Audubon to voluntarily recognize their union, but the organization has refused to do so. In a letter to the union, CEO Elizabeth Gray said “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.” She said the organization will stay neutral throughout the election process, but that seems hard to believe after they brought in a firm like Littler Mendelson to try and prevent employees from signing cards.

Staffers began organizing a union last year after the organization went through two massive rounds of layoffs, including one on Earth Day. The employees said these layoffs led them to want to build a safety net to protect themselves.  “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.”

Then late last year, a Politico report alleged that the organization ​“maintains a culture of retaliation, fear and antagonism toward women and people of color.” An investigation was launched into the Audubon Society’s practices by an outside law firm who substantiated some of these allegations, including finding sufficient evidence that a white, male executive team routinely made major decisions within the group and that women on the executive team were not given the same level of autonomy that their white male counterparts were given. This report led to the resignation on April 20th of CEO David Yarnold, who had served in the position for the last 11 years. Yarnold was replaced by Gray, who became the organization’s first female CEO.

Even with the anti-union campaign and the refusal of the organization to recognize their union, the employees say they are hopeful that they will prevail. They point to a growing trend in the non-profit movement towards unionized staff. They also say that the majority of employees have signed union cards, even after being subjected to captive audience meetings.

“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.”

The workers say that if they successfully vote to join the CWA, they will push for a first contract that includes diversity, pay equity, and improving career development pathways and transparency between staff and management.

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