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Unionized workers with the National Audubon Society converged on the New York City-based nonprofit’s leadership conference in Colorado last week to call on the conservation organization to bargain in good faith toward a first contract between the two sides.
About two dozen Bird Union members held rallies outside the Rocky Mountain YMCA in the town of Estes Park, where Audubon leadership was meeting, both to affirm their commitment to Audubon’s mission and to assert their intent to come away with a collective-bargaining agreement that reflects their dedication and fidelity.
“There is no Audubon without us” Alisa Opar, an articles editor for Audubon Magazine and a member of the union’s bargaining team, said outside the YMCA as several of her colleagues, many wearing hats, coats and gloves in the snow-patched northern Colorado cold, cheered and waved homemade signs.
Opar and her fellow workers, who came to the Rockies from throughout the country, said Audubon management and its CEO, Elizabeth Gray, have deliberately undermined negotiations since the start of contract talks 20 months ago by stalling on bargaining over wage and benefits topics and refusing to share information needed for bargaining. The union, which organized under the auspices of the Communications Workers of America, also says Audubon instituted changes in employees’ health-care plan without discussions and offered non-unionized employees benefits not available to union members.
Some of those issues formed the basis of allegations by the CWA filed earlier this year with the National Labor Relations Board, which last month found merit in the union's claims that Audubon had engaged in bad faith bargaining and unjustifiably refused to furnish information. (The two sides were directed to settle the matter on their own. If they cannot, a complaint will be issued and an administrative law judge will hold a hearing, a board spokesperson said.)
Audubon management “is using our mental, emotional, physical and fiscal health as bargaining chips in this fight,” Opar told her colleagues.
She said that Audubon management has on more than one occasion taken months to respond to union proposals, only to return to bargaining with incomplete proposals of their own. “The conservation work is the reason that we all go to work, that we all work for Audubon. What we are asking for is not extravagant. We are asking for a fair contract, a contract that has the terms that are standard in a nonprofit contract,” Opar said.
In a statement, an Audubon spokesperson said the organization is intent on establishing an equitable workplace as it continues its conservation mission.
“Audubon is committed to ensuring our workplace is one where all employees — whether union members or not — are respected, valued, and empowered, as well as united in our mission to protect birds and the places they need. We will continue to work constructively with the union to achieve a mutually agreeable contract so we can further our work to protect birds and the places they need,” the spokesperson said by email.
In 12 separate elections held in late fall 2021, Audubon workers across 10 National Labor Relations Board regions overwhelmingly approved unionizing under the CWA. The unionized workers represent about 70 percent of union-eligible workers at the conservation institution. Efforts to unionize the workers not yet organized would take place after an initial contract is in place, union officials have said.
The National Audubon Society, incorporated in 1905, is among the oldest, largest and best-known conservation organizations in the world. Although it’s best known for the role it plays in the preservation of birds and their habitats, the Manhattan-based nonprofit 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 Bird Union members say the drawn-out contract battle threatens to undermine that mission, in part because, “hundreds of thousands of dollars” are being spent on the labor issue, according to Opar.
Audubon earlier that year hired the anti-union Littler Mendelson law firm, self-described as “the world’s largest employment and labor law practice representing management.” Audubon management has said it did not hire the firm to obstruct the unionizing effort but to smooth the process.
The union, though, has said management has gone months without meeting with the workers’ bargaining committee. Although negotiations, which have been overseen by a federal mediator since March, have yielded some progress, big-ticket items such as wages and benefits are still to be negotiated.
Liz Muñoz Huber, a senior producer at the National Audubon Society’s Visual Storytelling department in Manhattan, noted that it has been just over 600 days since negotiations began.
“And when management drags feet at the bargaining table, it does nothing but hold us back and slow us down to the detriment of its workers and what we do,” Muñoz Huber said. “Help us get back to doing what we love: protecting birds and the places they and we all need.”
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