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union brawl

The Fight Between the Sierra Club and Its Union Is Getting Ugly

The green giant is doing battle with its employees’ union following a major shake-up in May.

Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Un-PAC
Ben Jealous, who was named executive director of the Sierra Club in January, joins hunger strikers and activists at a press conference in front of the U.S. Capitol on January 13, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

In May, the Sierra Club—the 130-year-old environmental group—announced an extensive overhaul of the organization, meant to make up for a projected $40 million budget deficit. That means massive layoffs, cutting whole departments, and radically changing the job descriptions of remaining employees. Under the terms of its collective bargaining agreement with the Progressive Workers Union, or PWU, which represents nearly 400 Sierra Club employees, the group is also required to negotiate over the impact that the restructuring process will have on union members.

For more than two months, the union and the nonprofit have been going back and forth about the terms of its restructuring. It’s getting ugly.

Last week, the Sierra Club made its last, best, and final offer on the terms of the restructuring and layoffs, according to PWU President C.J. Garcia-Linz, who is also a Sierra Club employee in Michigan. If the union doesn’t accept that within four business days, by July 10, then Sierra Club has said it will declare that negotiations have reached an impasse, a technical term indicating that there is no hope for the two parties to reach an agreement.

PWU disputes that negotiations are anywhere close to an impasse, highlighting the nonprofit’s refusal to bargain over important aspects of the restructuring process and provide requested information.

“Just because they’re tired and over the process doesn’t mean we’re done,” Garcia-Linz told me.

The PWU currently has four unfair labor practice charges against the Sierra Club pending in front of the National Labor Relations Board, three of which were filed after the restructuring announcement. (One relates to an earlier hiring freeze.) The Sierra Club also made the somewhat unusual move of filing its own unfair labor practice charge against the union after it had leveled two against the green group in May. In the charge, the Sierra Club accuses the PWU of violating the National Labor Relations Act by bargaining in bad faith. The text of the charge isn’t publicly available—only the section of the NLRA that the group accuses the union of having violated. The Sierra Club declined to provide either a copy of the charge or further details about it.

Geoffrey Leonard, an attorney at the New York City–based firm Levy Ratner P.C., representing PWU Sierra Club workers at the bargaining table, says that the charge is meritless and that the Club has never asked PWU to change its approach to negotiations.

“They’ve never indicated to us that they think we’re bargaining in bad faith. They’ve never asked us to do anything differently,” Leonard said.

Around the bargaining table, Sierra Club counsel has, according to PWU, refused to negotiate over aspects of the restructuring that the union argues it is required to by their collective bargaining agreement.

Sierra Club Communications Director Jonathon Berman declined to comment on several questions about the details of the group’s negotiations with PWU, financial situation, and executive pay structure. “The Sierra Club is committed to fiscal sustainability while ensuring we remain on track to achieve our 2030 goals,” Berman wrote in response to my questions, referencing a strategy previously devised by the organization. “As a result, we will no longer spend more than our revenue can support. Unfortunately, this has necessitated difficult decisions that have resulted in the departure of some of our colleagues.”

The first two charges the PWU filed with the NLRB over this restructuring process, in May, accuse the Sierra Club of withholding information requested by the union, treating workers covered by the collective bargaining agreement as at-will employees, and bargaining in bad faith. A third charge, filed in June, accuses the Club of retaliating against employees by limiting employee participation in all-staff video calls. When Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous announced the restructuring in early May, the chat function on those calls had already been disabled. As I reported not long after, employees held up signs and changed their backgrounds to the PWU logo. Subsequent all-staff calls have been in webinar format, several employees told me, where participants can only see presenters and are unable to interact directly with one another.

Many other points raised by the union seem likely to go to arbitration, Leonard said, where both parties debate over what’s required by the contract. In this case, that’s about what aspects of the restructuring agreement the Sierra Club must negotiate over with the union. PWU’s May 17 unfair labor practice charge alleges that the Club has largely refused to discuss topics like the total number of layoffs and voluntary layoff packages, though it has begun to make some concessions since that charge was filed. For the first month of negotiations, the Sierra Club “would treat bargaining proposals as questions about what they had already decided to do,” Leonard added.

Should the Sierra Club follow through on declaring an impasse, it will be able to unilaterally impose whatever provisions of that plan are not covered by the contract—still a subject of some debate. The PWU could then file another unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB. If the Board finds that the Sierra Club incorrectly declared an impasse, it can order them to come back to the bargaining table and, potentially, to claw back the changes it imposed as a result.

Like other green groups, the Sierra Club has made a point over the last several years of emphasizing the need for a just transition away from fossil fuels, which prioritizes the well-being of workers and communities whose economic livelihoods have depended on extracting coal, oil, and natural gas. Last week, Jealous wrote of the need to shift “from an economy defined by consumption back to one defined by working people making and using things they can be proud of again, from electric school buses to solar panels.” Staffers report that teams working on climate and environment-related labor issues were among the first to be targeted for layoffs.

“They fundraise on just transition and equitable jobs and community advocacy. For us it’s like campaigning against a polluter,” Garcia-Linz said. She likened the Club’s insistence on sticking to the letter of the collective bargaining agreement to staffers’ work campaigning against corporations. Several Sierra Club campaigns have involved pushing utilities, for instance, to reduce emissions by more than what federal statutes require. While the Sierra Club isn’t technically mandated to furnish employees being laid off with the comp time they earned on the job, Garcia-Linz calls its continued refusal to pay out that less than $20,000 “insulting”—particularly as senior leadership posts continue to command six-figure salaries.

“We understand they don’t have to under the current collective bargaining agreement, but it shows total disrespect to longtime members of the Sierra Club,” she told me. “It says, ‘We’re going to do the very least that we absolutely have to do for you.’”