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From late winter to early spring, hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes layover along Nebraska’s Central Platte River Valley on their journey to their northern nesting grounds.
One vital way station for the red-crowned bird on that migratory byway is the Rowe Sanctuary, a 2,800-acre refuge in the south-central portion of the Cornhusker State, owned and managed by the National Audubon Society.
About seven employees manage the sanctuary, which dozens of other bird species visit or call home, golden and bald eagles, Baltimore orioles, brown and American white pelicans, and all manner of ducks, herons, owls, hawks and cranes among them.
In recent years, though, discontent has also settled in, with workers there and throughout Audubon’s chapters saying management has been dismissive of their contributions and insensitive to complaints of harassment and worse.
A year and half after overwhelmingly voting to unionize, roughly 250 Audubon workers await a first contract, increasingly frustrated with the tactics employed by the Manhattan-based conservation organization.
“This is about people who haven’t had a voice in a long time. They haven’t felt safe, they haven’t had a livable wage,” Soncey Kondrotis, the operations manager at the Rowe Sanctuary’s Iain Nicolson Audubon Center and a member of the bargaining committee with The Bird Union, which organized under the auspices of the Communications Workers of America.
“We had managers and directors who at their best, were indifferent, at the worst, abusive,” said Kondrotis, despite Rowe being one of two of the organization’s sanctuaries and centers that brings in sufficient revenue that it does not depend on funding from the national organization to meet its budget.
‘Retaliation, fear, antagonism’
The Manhattan-based nonprofit, incorporated in 1905, is among the oldest, largest and best-known conservation organizations in the world. Dedicated mainly to the preservation of birds and their habitats, the Society has played large roles in pushing through environment-friendly legislation, including the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and, a year earlier, that which banned the pesticide DDT.
But the organization, a tax-exempt nonprofit since 1972 that had net assets of $543.3 million at the end of the fiscal year ending in June 2022, was also in recent years dogged by claims of intimidation, harassment and discrimination, many of which went public following a November 2020 article by Politico.com. The publication reported on allegations that Audubon, at the time headed by David Yarnold, fostered an autocratic leadership culture indifferent to employees, and in particular to employees of color. Many of those claims would be substantiated in an April 2021 report, commissioned by members of the Audubon board, by the law firm Morgan Lewis and acknowledged by Audubon.
“While the Morgan Lewis report did not verify all allegations, it did substantiate a culture of retaliation, fear, and antagonism towards women and people of color and tolerance of bullying and other bad behavior. This is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” an Audubon board member wrote days after the report’s release. She added that the board had taken steps “to improve the transparency between board and management and strengthen its governance practices in response to the situation.”
Yarnold would leave the Society by mutual agreement after a nearly 11-year tenure a few weeks later. The outgoing CEO, though, would earn nearly $1.3 million in compensation in 2021, an amount included $600,000 in separation pay.
His successor, Elizabeth Gray, an ornithologist and conservationist, was permanently appointed as CEO that November. She would earn just over $705,000 in total compensation that tax year.
“Birds bring me so much joy and I see that in the team at Audubon as well. Birds are a uniting force, bringing together communities across the hemisphere,” she said in a statement at the time.
An Audubon official provided only a short statement in response to questions.
"Audubon is 100% committed to working constructively with the Union to achieve a mutually agreeable collective bargaining agreement. We continue to make progress with the Union and have reached tentative agreements on a number of issues so far,” Maxine Griffin Somerville, the society’s chief people and culture officer, said in an emailed statement.
NAS hires anti-union firm
The unionization drive took full flight after 60 workers were fired on April 22, 2020 — Earth Day — without warning or severance packages, Kondrotis and Luis Benitez-Burgos, a staff representative with the CWA in New York City, said during a phone interview last week.
Soon after Yarnold’s rocky departure, the union, then known as Audubon for All, filed for National Labor Relations Board elections in July 2021 after, it said then, that Audubon management declined to agree to an expedited election process and also rejected a neutrality agreement. The union called those developments “the latest and most concrete pushback by Audubon executives against the workers’ union and a continuation of the nonprofit’s anti-union stance.”
The conservation group earlier in the year hired the anti-union Littler Mendelson law firm, self-described as “the world’s largest employment and labor law practice representing management.”
Although Audubon management said around that time that it did not hire the firm to obstruct the unionizing effort but rather to smooth the process, Littler Mendelson touts its anti-union stance. “We guide companies in developing and initiating strategies that lawfully avoid unions or effectively respond to unconventional corporate campaigns,” the San Francisco-based firm says on its website.
In 12 separate elections held late that fall, Audubon workers across 10 National Labor Relations Board regions overwhelmingly approved unionizing under the CWA. In all, more than 120 workers voted in favor, with the votes organizing more than 250 of Aububon’s workers.
In New York, 90 out of 131 eligible workers voted in favor of the unions, while 14 voted against.
Nationally, about 70 percent of union-eligible workers at the conservation institution are now unionized. Kondrotis said an effort to unionize the workers not yet organized would take place after a contract is in place.
Although negotiations, which are being overseen by a federal mediator, have yielded tentative agreements on several issues, the two sides remain far apart on the big-ticket items of salary and benefits, Kondrotis and Benitez-Burgos said.
Audubon has engaged in “really bad bargaining,” Benitez-Burgos, the chair of the bargaining committee, said.
He and Kondrotis said the Society refused to disclose data it used to come up with a new salary structure it then declined to put in place. Management also refused to meet with union representatives.
That eventually led the union to file an unfair labor practice claim with the National Labor Relations Board, which in September found that Audubon had violated the National Labor Relations Act for failing to disclose the data and for refusing to bargain with the union. Absent a settlement, the NLRB said it would issue a complaint against the organization.
A similar standoff occurred following the Society’s announcement about a year ago that it would be instituting a new company-wide health-care plan, with reduced benefits, Benitez-Burgos said.
“We tried to bargain with Audubon, understand their changes, tried to figure out something, and Audubon frankly, refused,” he said.
That also led to an NLRB complaint, which the board has also determined has merit, he said.
‘Need to remain non-partisan.’
The organization has also been rocked by a pronounced public effort by a number of its employees demanding that it change its name because its namesake, John James Audubon, the French-American artist and naturalist, because he was a slave-owner.
Although it has acknowledged that aspect of John James Audubon’s legacy, including by publishing a lengthy essay in its house publication by the noted poet and ornithologist J. Drew Lanham, the organization has resisted the effort. In March, the Society’s board of directors said that among the factors that led to its decision was how a name change would impact its purpose.
“Based on the critical threats to birds that NAS must urgently address and the need to remain a non-partisan force for conservation, the Board determined that retaining the name would enable NAS to direct key resources and focus towards enacting the organization’s mission,” the Society said.
As part of its announcement, Audubon said it would commit $25 million to support “equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging specific work” in conservation over the next five years.
Kondrotis, an Audubon worker for nearly seven years, said operations at Rowe have improved. “The people that they have now in the day-to-day operations have been fair and have been good,” she said.
But, she added, “the negotiations at the table are terrible.”
The union sent the organization a set of comprehensive wage and benefit proposals in July. The next round of talks is scheduled for Oct. 19.
“Right now they have everything that they need,” including supporting evidence and documents justifying salary terms, Benitez-Burgos said,
But although Kondrotis and Benitez-Burgos expressed hope that talks would soon begin to yield progress, for that to happen Audubon needs to take the negotiations more seriously.
“There's no one from corporate management there,” Benitez-Burgos said of the bargaining sessions. “This is the only contract I'm doing with nonprofits where no one from senior leadership is there.”
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