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Union Accuses Sierra Club of Plotting to Fire Strikers

A union representing staff has filed multiple unfair labor practice charges against management under Ben Jealous’s leadership.

Ben Jealous raises his hand while standing at a microphone in front of posters.
Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Ben Jealous of the Sierra Club speaks in Franklin Park during Day of Action Washington D.C. as climate demonstrators protest several banks on March 21, 2023.

On October 9, Sierra Club executive director Ben Jealous joined a picket line in support of the striking United Auto Workers. “I was raised in a union household, I’m raising my children to believe in the power of the union movement, and I’m a former union member myself,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Employees at the storied environmental organization Jealous runs weren’t impressed. Only a few weeks prior, the Progressive Workers Union, or PWU, which represents about 400 staff at the Sierra Club, had filed an unfair labor practice charge against Sierra Club management with the National Labor Relations Board. In the course of contract negotiations, the charge alleged, a manager informed the union of a plan to let their contract expire, hold out in negotiations so as to push them toward a strike, and then (in the words of the charge form) “terminate all of the striking workers under the pretext of restructuring the organization.”

The Sierra Club flatly denies this. “This time is too critical for our planet, and our work is too important to our community to be distracted by misinformation and scurrilous attacks that have gone on now for the better part of a year,” Jealous wrote in an email sent to staff on October 13. Sierra Club deputy director of communications Jonathon Berman responded similarly when I asked him about the charge via email this week. “Despite PWU leadership’s repeated efforts to push this fictitious claim, it remains completely untrue and again follows their practice of attacking senior leadership, particularly Black leaders,” Berman wrote.

It wasn’t the first time that the Sierra Club had been charged with violating the National Labor Relations Act during Jealous’s tenure. It wouldn’t be the last, either. Bargaining with PWU’s national unit—one of two PWU bargaining units, representing 251 employees—has continued to grind on after its previous collective bargaining agreement expired on January 1, having already been extended by a year. The union filed its most recent unfair labor practice charge earlier this month, on the grounds that management is “making proposals designed to be unacceptable to the union” and engaging in “regressive bargaining, refusing to acknowledge or respond to the union’s proposals, and insisting that the union meet for bargaining despite not providing bargaining proposals or responding to the Union’s proposals.”

The Sierra Club has denied the allegations made in PWU’s unfair labor practice charges; Berman called several specific allegations “false” over email. “PWU National leadership’s process has always been that when they cannot push their otherwise unreasonable demands they resort to misinformation, often targeting Black leadership within the organization,” Berman said. “This includes unfair labor charges to distract and delay the actual bargaining process that needs to occur to reach a new CBA.”

As climate and environmental organizations struggle to navigate an election year, the Sierra Club’s exceptionally tense relationship with its workers’ union highlights broader challenges around funding shortfalls, strategic uncertainties, and the looming prospect of a Republican administration that could wipe out much of the modest progress the club’s been able to push forward. While the Sierra Club has in recent years embraced a more expansive set of progressive politics than other legacy green groups—including on labor issues—making those commitments stick internally has proven harder.

UAW President Shawn Fain, whose union Jealous publicly supported in October, is the lead signatory on a February 6 open letter urging Sierra Club management to “negotiate a strong, progressive contract with Sierra Club workers represented by the Progressive Workers Union” and “live the values that the Sierra Club publicly espouses in support of organized labor.” Senator Ed Markey and Representative Rashida Tlaib have joined in calls for the same.

“It’s really challenging for our members to see Ben Jealous out supporting UAW on a strike line standing in solidarity with labor and helping them fight for the things that he’s denying us,” says PWU President CJ Garcia-Linz, an employee of the Sierra Club’s Michigan Chapter. “The UAW stands in solidarity with us. Ben stands in solidarity with the UAW. So why doesn’t Ben stand in solidarity with PWU?”

Tensions were already high coming into this round of contract negotiations. Last year, the Sierra Club began laying off large numbers of employees in order to account for a purported $60 million budget gap and restructure the organization around state-based chapters. While Berman declined to provide figures as to how many staff had been laid off or accepted severance packages, PWU reports that 33 of its members are no longer with the organization as a result of this restructuring process. Many of those leaving accepted voluntary severance packages, the terms of which were hotly debated in negotiations between the union and the club.

Back at the bargaining table now over a new contract, PWU reports a virtual standstill, claiming management has been largely unwilling to engage with the proposals it has put forward. Unlike in the last round of negotiations over the impact of the restructuring on union members, the Sierra Club is being represented at the bargaining table by five lawyers. Three of those lawyers are outside counsel, partners at the law firms Dilworth Paxson and SloanSokai. Sierra Club declined to provide details as to the makeup of its bargaining team or how much it was paying outside counsel, though employment-side lawyers can charge between $300 to $1,500 per hour if billing hourly. PWU says that it’s spent 66.5 hours at the bargaining table in this round of negotiations so far, although legal fees would very likely cover time outside of that, as well. In an email to management in late December, Jealous said they would need “at least 100 hours at the bargaining table to negotiate the contract.”

Sierra Club management has repeatedly countered allegations of bad-faith bargaining by pointing to its own demands for longer and more frequent bargaining sessions, citing PWU’s unwillingness to come to the table. The union counters that it sees little point participating in hours of talks when management has been unwilling to make meaningful compromises. “We used to be able to have a discussion at the table about the situation we were dealing with, where the people across the table knew what we were talking about and cared to some extent,” says Garcia-Linz, referencing previous negotiations. “It’s been challenging to get their lawyers to engage with our proposals. There are a few places where we did make some movement, but in the places where it matters—like annual cost of living increases and disciplinary measures—we are very far apart. They’re not coming with new proposals.”

Among the proposals management considers nonnegotiable, per PWU, is to make annual cost of living increases (i.e., beyond a one-time initial pay raise) contingent on whether the Sierra Club performs better financially than it did the year prior. Another would remove the union’s ability to initiate grievance procedures around disciplinary measures. Geoffrey Leonard, an attorney at the New York City–based firm Levy Ratner P.C., who’s been representing PWU Sierra Club workers in contract talks, describes Sierra Club management’s actions as “textbook bad-faith bargaining: You threaten the union that if they go on strike they’ll be fired and then just refuse to meaningfully bargain. You show up and accuse the union of not bargaining enough, and then their proposals are designed to be totally unacceptable to the union.”

PWU members I spoke with didn’t seem optimistic about how negotiations were going, or the likelihood of a resolution. The dispute comes at a difficult time for the climate and environmental movement, now adjusting to what many consider a big legislative win—the Inflation Reduction Act—while gearing for elections. For an organization with hundreds of employees, a battle between workers and top executives doesn’t bode well. Functionally, the job of an executive director and other top-level management is to provide a public face for the organization and (relatedly) court donors, who often have their own ideas about what sorts of work it ought to be pursuing. Employees on the ground don’t just carry those plans out but provide important insights as to what’s working and what’s not and the kinds of campaigns that are needed. A hostile relationship between employees and management threatens to sever that link, in some cases leaving lower-level workers to reluctantly implement strategies drawn up by donors and top-level executives with salaries potentially orders of magnitude greater than their own. For now, PWU members are just hoping for a good contract, soon. “We all want to get back to work,” Garcia-Linz told me.