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Inside the Meltdown at the Sierra Club

Employees at the prominent environmental organization describe chaos, threats, and escalating conflict.

Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous speaks into a microphone.
Sierra Club executive director Ben Jealous speaks during the “All Our Relations Snake River Campaign” event in Seattle, Washington, on October 1, 2023.

Last year, the Sierra Club faced a $40 million funding shortfall and “significant fundraising uncertainty due to overall economic trends,” a spokesperson for the legacy environmental group explained over email in May.* Top management—helmed by then recently appointed Executive Director Ben Jealous, a former president of the NAACP, Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate, and venture capitalist—accordingly embarked on massive layoffs as it went about “creating new positions, eliminating some old positions and re-imagining others” to deal with the organization’s financial realities. 

Layoffs were intended to be part and parcel of a restructuring of the organization and new strategic vision, a “50-state strategy,” by which club staff would be reorganized into work across four distinct regions, with a focus on red states. Employees who had spent years, in some cases, leading campaigns with the national organization were reshuffled into new roles. Some were reassigned to state chapter organizations or a new “field team” that runs the regional offices that serve as intermediaries between states and the national organization. 

“Having a 50-state strategy is critical for us,” Jealous told Time. “In this moment, when the power grid will be changed in all 50 states, when we are building green industry in all 50 states, the Sierra Club must be as effective and impactful as possible in all 50 states.”

Nearly a year on, employees across the organization report widespread uncertainty over the strategic direction of the green group and the responsibilities required of new roles, offices, and departments. The Sierra Club has yet to finalize a 2024 budget. Managers in both the national organization and state chapters say they only have access to a few weeks’ worth of budgetary information at a time, which has made longer-term planning extraordinarily difficult. “They don’t tell us anything about the budget. There’s very little transparency,” one manager at a state chapter told me. “A lot of us just want to run functional campaigns and do power-building work, and it’s just tough when, from the top, there’s a lack of structure, a lack of organization, and a lack of communication.” This is in addition to the increasingly contentious bargaining between management and the Progressive Workers Union, which represents a portion of Sierra Club staff. The PWU has filed multiple unfair labor practice charges, or ULPs, with the National Labor Relations Board against the Sierra Club.

Asked about criticisms of the restructuring process, Sierra Club’s deputy director of communications, Jonathon Berman, said that “numerous communications” at the outset made clear that “this would be a multistep process which would proceed over multiple months, and for some portions, more than a year. We continue to follow that process, adjusting and tweaking based on feedback from a wide array of stakeholders as we return the organization to a position of growth.” Asked about the organization’s overall financial health, Berman said that the Sierra Club “continues to make the necessary reforms to ensure our fiscal health and ability to meet our core goals and mission. Just a year ago, leadership was confronted with navigating a potential $40 million deficit. Our work has remained focused on ensuring that such dangers to our fiscal health do not materialize as we finalize the 2024 budget.”

Several Sierra Club employees—who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation—were told that between 50 and 100 people could soon be laid off. “Sometimes I show up to work wondering if I’m going to have a job today,” another employee said. “Am I going to be able to log into my Sierra Club account?” Several high-level staff have left the organization in recent weeks, including from the new field team that was purportedly built out to support chapters and drive the 50-state strategy forward. Members of that team, Sierra Club’s largest, have gotten questions from chapters that they can’t answer. Most pressing among those are questions about their budgets: While chapters can and often do raise their own funds, most rely on the national organization. 

A document from spring of 2023, provided to PWU by Sierra Club via an information request, show that the top 10 earners at the Sierra Club, meanwhile—the group’s executive team—earned a combined 14.4 percent more ($3,236,620) at that time than what the same team had earned the prior year. Asked about these figures, Berman said he could not comment on the document without reviewing it. “There have now been multiple efforts by those seeking to spread misinformation to create numbers to fit their narrative,” he added. I responded that those figures had been provided to PWU by the Sierra Club but did not hear back from Berman in time for publication.

Last year’s layoffs kicked off a round of bargaining between the Sierra Club and the Progressive Workers Union, which represents staff in the green group’s state chapters and at the national level who are each covered under separate collective bargaining agreements. That “impact bargaining,” i.e., regarding who would be laid off, how they would be selected, and the terms of their severance, was followed a few months later by bargaining over a new contract. The contract for employees of the national organization is still underway. The unfair labor practice charges PWU has filed against the Sierra Club include one last year alleging that leadership intended to prolong contract negotiations and provoke a strike, after which it would fire striking workers. Sierra Club management have repeatedly called the ULPs filed against them by PWU baseless.

In an emailed statement, PWU wrote that “management has made it clear that they are committed to their efforts to bust our union and gut integral provisions in our existing contract. Now, in the middle of ongoing negotiations and less than one year since the last massive layoff and restructure package threw the organization into disarray, rumors are swirling about proposals from senior management for further layoffs. It is time for the Board to take action to avoid layoffs and investigate the grievous mismanagement of the organization by Jealous and his Executive Team.” 

When he arrived at the Sierra Club, Jealous also brought with him a largely new executive team. “There’s been 100 percent turnover in senior leadership before I got here, and there were a bunch of vacancies we had to fill,” he explained to E&E News last year. New hires included people that Jealous had previously worked with in his gubernatorial campaign, at the NAACP, and at People for the American Way, another progressive nonprofit focused on advocacy.

Throughout the Sierra Club, employees tasked with carrying out strategies made by the executive team say that rapid turnover, along with job reassignments and budgetary uncertainties, have made their work exceedingly difficult. One employee said that the email they received outlining their new job assignment was sent without critical information filled in. “Somebody messed up a mail merge, so it said, ‘You’re blank, you’re doing blank.’” After receiving their job assignment, the same employee learned they’d been demoted, after having been with the Sierra Club for more than five years and spending much of that time developing highly specific expertise. They described the news as a “gut punch.”

“I feel like the culture has shifted from feeling confident, cutting edge, and kicking ass to, ‘scared of our own shadow, not sure what’s going to happen tomorrow, and not sure who to trust,” they said. “The Sierra Club was a fabulous place to work because we have work-life balance and respect for the fact that we were moms and daughters and spouses and partners. There’s none of that right now. I think people would be afraid to share what they were going through.” Another employee, who’s represented by PWU, said that “what’s really sticking out to me right now is this feeling that you can’t trust anyone. There’s just a lot of fear around what’s going on and what could potentially happen.”

Another employee who has worked closely with the new executive team said it feels like that team “came in with an us-versus-them mentality. You either are on board with them and you’re the yes people or you’re not.” Top leadership at the Sierra Club reportedly call meetings about how to deal with the union “war room” meetings. Asked about this allegation, Berman said that “the Sierra Club does not have a war room.”

With the exception of chief legal officer Erica McKinley, the Sierra Club’s executive team has largely not been present for bargaining over this contract, PWU has said. They’re represented instead by several hired attorneys. The Sierra Club has declined to disclose how much it pays those lawyers, amid massive budget shortfalls, but employment lawyers have been known to charge from $300 to $1,500 per hour per attorney if billing hourly.  

Management-level employees have been made to attend anti-union presentations that include point-by-point rebuttals of union demands, according to screenshots of slides from one such presentation shared with The New Republic. “We must balance managing the organization to maximize impact while also offering as flexible and worker-friendly [an] environment as possible,” one slide pertaining to PWU salary demands read. One management-level employee who attended that presentation told me that the implication seemed to be that PWU and the workers it represents were interested only in salary raises, rather than saving the environment—an opinion this employee does not share: “The sense I get from the executive team is that PWU is trying to hamper the Sierra Club or to stop us from doing our work,” that employee said. But people “don’t come to work here because they hate the environment.”

Employees, including those who’d worked under previous executive directors, described an executive team less open to collaboration and operating with a more “corporate vibe,” as one employee put it. “Before there was just a lot more of a relationship with the executive level. We used to have town halls and open spaces to communicate with those higher up,” an employee represented by PWU said. “It’s just very cold and impersonal,” another relayed, noting that most employees receive only sporadic communication from Jealous and the executive team. Around the time that layoffs were announced, PWU members joined all-staff Zoom meetings displaying union logos and symbols of solidarity. Shortly thereafter, the chat function in those meetings was disabled. Now all-staff meetings are held as webinars, where only the screens of presenters are visible and attendees cannot communicate with one another. (This change was the subject of another unfair labor practice charge filed by PWU.)

Asked how Sierra Club might confront low morale in the organization and fears about layoffs, Berman responded that a “core component of ensuring a strong Sierra Club is combating misinformation about who and what we are. We are not an organization that tolerates—and certainly not one that encourages—retaliation against our own employees, and the suggestion that we are without any proof has no other purpose than to try and divide the Sierra Club at a critical juncture,” he added. “We take pride in our employees and their work, which is why despite navigating a difficult economic environment we have continued to invest in our employees through overall benefits that are comparable to those offered by more wealthier corporations.”

*This piece has been updated to reflect the correct figure for the Sierra Club’s budget shortfall.