Audubon Society workers call for an equitable workplace and fair bargaining
A Red-Bellied Woodpecker stands on a branch as Robert DeCandido also known as "Birding Bob" leads a group of bird watchers during a tour in Central Park, New York on November 29, 2020. - On a recent sunny morning in New York a few dozen people gathered in Central Park's wooded Ramble area with a common goal: zero in on an elusive owl. Autumn leaves crunch under their shoes as "Birding Bob" -- a guide who has been organizing birdwatching tours in the park for more than three decades, with interest jumping since the coronavirus pandemic hit the city in March -- leads them along winding paths. (Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images)

Workers at the Audubon Society have been bargaining for a union contract for over a year with no end in sight. Members of the Bird Union say hostile management and union-busting tactics have prevented the two sides from reaching a fair agreement. 

In January, the Communication Workers of America, a communications and media labor union that represents the Bird Union, filed three charges of Unfair Labor Practices against the National Audubon Society on behalf of the Audubon workers. The charges, filed with the National Labor Relations Board, cite Audubon’s decision to cut workers’ healthcare benefits amid contract negotiations in October. Workers say despite the Audubon Society’s claims that they cultivate a supportive environment, they have yet to remedy historically toxic workplace conduct, and have not negotiated equitably at the bargaining table.

“As someone with a lifelong disability that requires regular appointments with specialists, as well as the daily use of medical equipment, affordable insurance is a massive factor in my ability to remain with any company or organization,” said Diana Wilson, a communications associate at the Audubon Society, in a press release. “That management would pull this nonsense is a sign to me that so much of what is said about Audubon working towards being inclusive is little more than an empty gesture. The amount of anxiety and fear alone that this is causing Audubon employees is exhausting, point blank, and even after being part of the Earth Day layoffs, I think this is the most disrespected I’ve ever felt as an Audubon employee.”

The Audubon Society’s union-busting behavior is in line with the conduct of other green nonprofit organizations that purport to be mission-driven and ethical but fail to practice what they preach. Workers at organizations like Greenpeace, Defenders of Wildlife, and Center of Biological Diversity have recently unionized, but have faced retaliation and aggressive opposition.

“Audubon is one of the few places that really strives to answer: How can we leave this planet better than we found it? And that’s why it’s so disheartening to me to hear constantly time and time again that Audubon is fighting at the negotiating table, that they are dragging us on,” said  Josh Levin, a digital platforms manager and Bird Union membership committee member. “We say at Audubon, that we care about the future and that we want to make these positive changes, but we’re not actually doing the work right now. We’re not walking the walk.”

The organization faced backlash in March when, after a year-long discussion amongst management and workers, the board decided to keep “Audubon” the organization’s name—a nod to John James Audubon, a racist and enslaver.  When the decision was announced, three board members resigned, local chapters began changing their names, and the organization’s union changed to The Bird Union as they await a vote for an official name.

“I personally am disgusted,” Levin said. “We are all really scared of what happened. It wasn’t a fair and open process.”

Levin said management has not shown the staff results from a poll that was conducted on the decision to change the name.

“[As] an organization made of scientists, how are you not going to show your work?” Levin said. “The vast majority of people who have spoken up have clearly stated this was a bad decision. And if we look at where it’s hurting us the most, it’s the future. We are struggling to retain partnerships. They see what we’re doing, and they see what we’re saying. And they’re [thinking], ‘Hey, this isn’t matching up. You said you were going to drive forward in a manner that was dignified and respectful of the work that we do.’ And instead, they’re just deciding to kowtow to white supremacy.”

Issues at the organization go beyond its name. Workers in the union have been bargaining for a proposal that would ensure that a staff person who files a grievance claim would not be forced to have the meeting conducted by the perpetrator.

“Why should I have to face my abuser in order to get a fair and just due process out of this?” Levin said. “ Audubon has just been dragging their feet on that.”

Levin has been working at the Audubon Society for a year now, and immediately joined the unionizing effort after being hired. During his first week, he was surprised to receive an email from human resources apologizing for transphobic comments. Levin, who is nonbinary, was caught off guard that the apology would be coming from the HR department and not the head of management themselves. 

According to a statement from Maxine Griffin Somerville, the Chief People & Culture Officer at the National Audubon Society, “apologies were made” to the staff impacted by it. Audubon and the union have agreed to codify their non-discrimination policy to include that all trans and non-binary colleagues are treated fairly with respect and dignity.

Soncey Kondritis, an operations manager at the National Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary who is on the bargaining committee, recently traveled to New York for a bargaining session. Audubon Society CEO Elizabeth Gray was supposed to be in attendance, but did not appear. 

“You don’t have to respect me, but you better respect the people who elected me to speak for them,” Kondritis said. “By not showing up, by not coming to the table, by not bargaining fairly, you’re disrespecting them and that is unacceptable. They’re the boots on the ground. They’re the ones out in summertime, sweating their butts off. They’re the ones who are freezing in the winter, who are doing the hard work.”

Kondritis has worked at the Audubon Society for six years. When she started, she said made $31,000 and did not receive a raise for another four years. 

“It’s a very defeating atmosphere,” Kondritis said. 

Workers said they hope to see the organization ensure a fair and equitable workplace, center inclusivity in their contract, and support and protect underrepresented groups. 

“If [Audubon] really wanted to negotiate in good faith, get a contract quickly that meets our needs and makes sense for management’s strategic plan, we could do that,” Levin said. “[Instead, their] hope is that the union will be so battered and bruised and beat down and tired that we accept whatever crumbs they’re gonna throw out. And I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...