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Sierra Club workers vote to authorize strike amid layoffs, allegations of mismanagement

By Suhauna Hussain, Los Angeles Times
Published: July 7, 2024, 5:27am

Unionized workers at the Sierra Club, a leading environmental organization, have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a potential strike amid layoffs and allegations of financial mismanagement.

The vote, in which 87% of about 180 staffers who cast ballots authorized union leaders to call a strike, raises the likelihood of a work stoppage at the historic institution, which has been roiled by downsizing efforts as fundraising has plummeted.

“What has intensified over the last year is a lack of reciprocity, respect and care for members of the union and a dismissal of their humanity,” said Cecilia Garcia-Linz, who has worked at the Sierra Club for 13 years and serves as president of the Progressive Workers Union, which represents Sierra Club employees. “Just because we love the planet and enjoy the work we do doesn’t mean we should forgo wages or other rights they are trying to take away.”

As contract talks have dragged on for the past several months, the union has filed claims of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that Sierra Club leaders have deliberately delayed bargaining and retaliated against union leaders by targeting them for layoffs, as well as unlawfully limited employees’ ability to speak out about their workplace conditions, among other charges.

Garcia-Linz said the union plans to call a strike as soon as Tuesday if progress isn’t made on contract negotiations and union leaders who have been laid off aren’t reinstated. A strike would be undertaken by the roughly 200 unionized workers in the Sierra Club’s national organization, not staffers employed by its various local chapters.

Sierra Club spokesperson Jonathon Berman called the union’s allegations “baseless” and said the organization has offered robust pay raises and expanded benefits in negotiations.

“A common tactic from PWU National leadership has been to allege union busting and personally attack individuals within the organization whenever leadership cannot agree to one of their demands,” Berman said in an email.

The Sierra Club experienced a boost in fundraising and increased staffing significantly when former President Trump was in office as it and other groups positioned themselves as a line of defense against Trump administration policies widely viewed as being harmful to the environment. After Trump lost his reelection bid, fundraising fell and the organization has been forced to return to pre-2017 staffing levels, Berman said.

Berman said that after layoffs of about 70 employees — about 10% of the total workforce — and eliminating more than 80 vacant positions, the company is now on track to hit its revenue goals for the year. A strike, he added, would “undermine the Sierra Club’s operations and ability to fundraise.”

The total number of employees in the Sierra Club’s chapters and national staff are down from a high of 913 in 2022 to 718 this year, according to a May budget report compiled by the organization.

A bargaining session with an outside mediator is scheduled for Monday, Berman said.

Much of the union’s ire has been focused on Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous, who took over the organization last year after it went through a wrenching internal reckoning over racist views promoted by i ts founder, John Muir, more than a century ago and allegations of abuse by a former senior employee that arose out of the #MeToo movement.

Several workers said they were initially excited about the hiring of Jealous, who professed pro-labor sentiment on a listening tour at the beginning of his tenure, but the relationship began to sour when he announced deep cuts to staff and an organizational overhaul in April 2023 that he said would mitigate a budget deficit he had inherited.

In an interview earlier this month, Jealous said the Sierra Club’s leadership was “being extremely transparent,” and that people may not have realized how precarious the group’s finances had been.

“These are the hard decisions that you have to make when you lead a more than century-old institution and you’re committed to it having a future as long as its past,” he said.

In early June, unionized workers sent a letter to the Sierra Club’s board of directors informing them they had issued a vote of no confidence in the organization’s leadership, with more than 90% of 330 union-represented workers approving the rebuke.

In response to union allegations that Jealous has not reigned in spending and has hired friends for management posts, Berman said that travel budgets have been reduced and that many vacant senior level positions had needed to be filled.

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“Given the looming budget crisis Ben Jealous inherited, we moved quickly to fill those key roles with seasoned leaders,” Berman said. “Having worked with Ben Jealous before should not be a disqualifier.”

Erica Dodt, an elected member of the union’s executive committee and a bargaining team member who is about eight months pregnant, was laid off last month. She said that, along with concerns over losing her healthcare benefits, she worries that the turmoil is coming during a year when Trump is seeking reelection.

And Jennifer Cardenas, who worked as a Sierra Club field organizer in the Inland Empire for about two years before being laid off, said her team was hit hard by layoffs last year. The cuts, she said, had unraveled the team’s work on environmental justice issues in communities of color.

“It’s really disheartening,” she said.

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