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The Sierra Club and Its Union Are Trading Accusations

A new unfair labor practice charge alleges that the environmental group plans to lay off half of the union’s bargaining committee, including an employee who is pregnant.

Ben Jealous speaks into a microphone with another person beside him.
Sierra Club executive director Ben Jealous speaks during the “All Our Relations Snake River Campaign” event on October 1, 2023.

Months into contentious contract negotiations, the Progressive Workers Union, representing around 400 Sierra Club employees, now alleges that the renowned environmental group “has retaliated against union members for protected concerted activity” by planning to lay off half of the union’s six-person bargaining committee in those negotiations and elected members of PWU’s executive committee. That’s according to the latest Unfair Labor Practice charge the union has filed against the Sierra Club with the National Labor Relations Board, one of 10 such charges filed since last April. 

The Sierra Club refutes these allegations. In an all-staff email sent out Monday afternoon, seen by The New Republic, chief operating officer Michael Parrish wrote that the organization “has not advised any union leader that Sierra Club will conduct a layoff.” He noted that the group’s board of directors has yet to approve its 2024 budget, which it will consider in a meeting scheduled for Thursday that is “open to the public and you may attend.” Accordingly, Parrish wrote, “there has been no final decision that Sierra Club will conduct a layoff.” He accused PWU of spreading “false information.” Per an all-staff email sent by CEO Ben Jealous on Wednesday morning, seen by The New Republic, that budget vote has been postponed and is now scheduled to take place on May 18.*

Jonathon Berman, Sierra Club’s deputy chief of communications, responded similarly to a request for comment on the union’s latest ULP charge. “Whoever PWU leadership may be claiming to have received information from has no authority to speak for or on behalf of the Sierra Club,” he wrote in an email. “Until there is a final budget approved by the Sierra Club’s Board of Directors, it is premature to speculate on what may or may not be included and any potential impact on staff. PWU has a legal obligation to refrain from spreading information that is knowingly and maliciously false, which we believe they are doing here.”

The PWU represents both employees of Sierra Club chapters and employees of the national organization, who currently have separate collective bargaining agreements. The national unit’s contract is still under negotiations after bargaining began last fall; the unit’s previous contract with the Sierra Club expired at the end of 2023. As part of that, the national unit has demanded that the two units be combined into one, which the Sierra Club has refused.

The union, in turn, rejected the Sierra Club’s assertion that it is spreading false information. “PWU has been sharing true and accurate information with its members that the Sierra Club is planning another round of layoffs, and has prepared a tentative layoff list that includes a number of union leaders,” the union said in an emailed statement. “The organization’s Board of Directors still has to vote on the associated budget—we have never said otherwise. Our union is acting prudently, appropriately, and within our Section 7 rights in sharing this information with our members.”

Last month, I spoke with several management-level Sierra Club employees who’d been told that a major round of layoffs was imminent. News about this round of layoffs, if one is indeed in the works, comes about a year after earlier mass layoffs initiated months into former NAACP president and venture capitalist Ben Jealous’s tenure as CEO. 

The club argued that last spring’s layoffs were a response to a looming $40 million budget shortfall. The club has not responded to multiple inquiries from both the union and myself to elaborate on those numbers and provide an update as to whether the organization’s finances have improved. PWU has filed a number of ULP charges against the Sierra Club related to its bargaining over the impact that last year’s layoffs would have on union members, three of which have been withdrawn. The Sierra Club also withdrew its own charge against PWU. The NLRB approved that withdrawal request in July and has accepted the union’s withdrawals as well, meaning all of those cases have now been closed.

Among the bargaining team members the union says are slated to be let go in a prospective new round of layoffs is Erica Dodt, who’s also a national unit representative and is pregnant. The latest ULP charge further alleges that the Sierra Club “unilaterally changed terms and conditions of employment by terminating a pregnant employee and union leader, Erica Dodt in violation of the non-discrimination language in the parties’ expired” collective bargaining agreement. 

In another ULP charge, filed late last year, PWU alleged that the Sierra Club “threatened employees in retaliation for their engagement in protected section 7 and NLRB activity by threatening to terminate Erica Dodt.” If any of these allegations are true, the Sierra Club would likely be violating federal law, which stipulates that both retaliation and the threat of retaliation made during bargaining are illegal forms of intimidation. 

Sierra Club’s top management have previously said that last spring’s layoffs were also a way to restructure the organization around a “50-state strategy” that provides chapter organizations with more resources. But the employees slotted into new roles report being saddled with additional work, as well as a lack of clarity as to their own responsibilities and the Sierra Club’s broader strategic direction. Several high-level employees have left the organization in recent months, including from the club’s largest department, which has been tasked with carrying out the state-focused restructuring. As of early April, several management-level employees said they were only being provided with a few weeks’ worth of budgetary information. 

“They don’t tell us anything about the budget. There’s very little transparency,” one manager at a state chapter told me at the time. “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.”  

The union has asked the Sierra Club’s board to reject any budget proposals that include additional layoffs, and begin an investigation into what they allege is mismanagement of the Sierra Club’s budget by its executive leadership team.

* This piece has been updated.