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Environmental Activists Turn Talents Inward—and Unionize – Mother Jones

Environmental Activists Turn Talents Inward—and Unionize – Mother Jones

Environmental Activists Turn Talents Inward—and Unionize – Mother Jones

Allison Bailey/ Nur Photo

This story was originally published in High Country NewsAnd is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

A few years ago,Erica Prather (the national outreach representative for Defenders of Wildlife) and her partner allowed every piece of plastic that they used for a whole year to pile up inside their living room, spilling out into their garage. It was a reminder of how their waste is permanent. They called the mound of Styrofoam containers, dog bags and other trash their “Pile of Petroleum Past.” As someone who cares about the state of the planet, it was an example of Prather trying to live her values.

Prather encourages others to live their values, including her employer. But it wasn’t until Bernie Sanders ended his candidacy for the presidency in 2020 that Prather moved to a different, more drastic form of action: “I remember this moment when I was weeping during his concession speech, and he was like, ‘There are ways that the progressive movement can move on,’ and he literally said, ‘Unionize your workplace.’”

And unionize she did. Prather used the organizing skills she’d honed for years as an advocate for endangered species and applied them at her own workplace, Defenders of Wildlife. Other employees quickly joined the fray and voted to form their union on September 1.

They aren’t the only ones. Many other green groups’ employees have formed unions in the last year. These include Greenpeace USA (the Sunrise Movement), the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace USA (the Center for Biological Diversity), and the National Audubon Society.

Environmental organizations have long sought to affect change outwardly—to promote biodiversity and stave off extinctions or to curb the impacts of the climate crisis. Now the organizations’ employees are turning to unions to change their workplaces from within, by fighting for higher wages and better benefits, and by forcing their organizations—whose leadership is predominantly white—to be more diverse and inclusive.

Green groups haven’t had the best track record in this respect. Defenders of Wildlife leaked a report by a diversity equity and inclusion (DEI), consultancy firm earlier this year. Its contents, which detailed a “culture of fear,” were damning for the organization: The 144 employees surveyed described an unwelcoming environment for BIPOC employees, who experienced “tokenism, microaggressions, cooption of ideas” and bore the brunt of DEI work.

In response to the report, Defenders’ president and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark told E&E News that the organization “is deeply committed to fostering a positive, inclusive and safe workplace where all voices are heard.”

The National Chapter of the Audubon Society, one of the nation’s oldest environmental organizations, is also aiming to improve representation. Tykee James, Audubon’s government affairs coordinator, started working at the nonprofit in 2018, the same year he co-founded a group for people of color. He was the leader of Audubon’s unionizing efforts in 2020. “There needed to be a staff-led, staff-centered, POC-centered effort to support marginalized and historically excluded people in this organization,” James said.

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The group was a unique way for people to share their working conditions.  “But being outspoken still felt risky,” James said. “One thing that we always feared was getting fired.” Unionizing felt like a smart next step. They won their election in September. “But being outspoken still felt risky.”

James hopes Audubon’s union will help management create DEI initiatives and trainings that staff can support. “We can have an opportunity to provide feedback (on DEI) that’s meaningful and moving,” James said. “When workers don’t have a say, it’s the Black and brown, it’s the most marginalized, it’s the historically excluded people who feel those burdens first and worst.”  

Both Audubon, Defenders of Wildlife and the Progressive Workers Union are in the early stages of union efforts. They could look to the Sierra Club, who in 2018 signed a five-year contract for its shop, the Progressive Workers Union. Prior to contract renegotiations, several employees—particularly women of color—were “seriously underpaid,” said Larry Williams Jr., who co-founded the Progressive Workers Union and worked there until recently. The union negotiated a contract which included raises, retirement and healthcare benefits, as well as transparency on issues such as how to get promoted. The Sierra Club had women of color lobby for an additional fund to be included to address inequalities in pay, and to cover the cost of trainings and professional education.

In a way, the motivations behind forming a union aren’t all that different from fighting extractive industries. Environmental workers are connecting the dots. “They recognize the exploitation of natural resources is just as bad as the exploitation of human resources.” James said. “If we stand up against that exploitation of the earth, we have to stand up against the exploitation of us.”   

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