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Union organizing fight at Audubon highlights ‘toxic culture’

Audubon staffers are attempting to organize a union. Photo by Lena_viridis/Shutterstock

Two years ago, I attended the 2019 Audubon Convention in Milwaukee, and in a story about it, I wrote:

“In addition to its work for bird conservation, Audubon over the last several years has embraced a work ethic that makes all people feel welcome. It’s referred to in short as EDI — equity, diversity, and inclusion. The ethic was incorporated into the convention’s theme — ‘Audubon for Everyone’ — and came up in more than one of the workshops I attended.”

Now, that article and the message sent during the convention feels like happy-talk and window dressing. If you haven’t been following news about the National Audubon Society lately, the organization has been embroiled in controversy for the better part of a year over its treatment of workers, especially workers of color, women, and the LGBTQ community.

In the early months of the pandemic, Audubon laid off more than 100 staffers in April and June 2020; the first round of layoffs was announced on Earth Day. In addition, the cost of employees’ healthcare increased during the pandemic. A Politico report last November revealed an internal survey of employees that showed deep dissatisfaction among employees.

Allegations of a toxic work environment were confirmed in an audit by law firm Morgan Lewis. It found that Audubon “has a culture of retaliation, fear, and antagonism toward women and people of color.” The audit also recommended greater staff participation in the decision-making process and more sincere efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.

A push for a union

In April and May of this year, former CEO David Yarnold and other senior managers left Audubon, and employees have been pushing for a union with the Communications Workers of America. The union is called Audubon for All.

And while unions may be more associated with manufacturing companies and other organizations with large blue-collar workforces, they’re not unheard of at large nonprofits. Environmental nonprofits Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Sunrise Movement, and all have unions that are recognized by management. And just in the last few weeks, workers at the Center for Biological Diversity have started organizing a union, and its CEO agreed to a card check, highlighting the growing trend of union organizing among nonprofits. 

The Audubon for All organizing process began earlier this year, and an article in Energy & Environment News in mid-March noted that staffers say “they are meeting sharp resistance from the group’s management, which has hired one of the country’s most well-known union-busting firms.” Audubon management denied that the firm, Littler Mendelson PC, was hired to break up the union, but E&E News reported:

“Littler’s website states that’s one of its specialties, and a handbook from the firm obtained by E&E News lays out multiple strategies for fighting unionization efforts. ‘Our deep experience in representing management serves as a strong counterpoint to the world’s most powerful labor organizations,’ its website states. ‘We guide companies in developing and initiating strategies that lawfully avoid unions or effectively respond to unconventional corporate campaigns.’”

Vote passes

On May 27, more than half of Audubon’s non-management staffers voted via a card-check process in support of a union. In mid-June, union organizers delivered a petition to Audubon headquarters in Washington with more than 10,000 signatures from people supporting the workers’ right to unionize. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) voiced their support for workers and called for Audubon to voluntarily recognize the union. Union organizers also held a rally outside the headquarters to address ongoing issues at Audubon and argue for the union.

Organizers say the new interim CEO Elizabeth Gray has refused to voluntarily recognize the union. In late May, Gray said in a statement:

“Audubon publicly commits to remaining neutral throughout the organizing and voting process. We will not campaign against the union in any way and are willing to work with union organizers to hold an election as soon as possible.”

Up next: An NLRB election

Yesterday, Audubon issued a statement saying it “urged the Communication Workers of America (CWA) to submit a petition by mid-July for a union election administered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).”  

Gray said in the statement: “Audubon made clear on May 14th that it eagerly supports a fair, open, democratic election process administered by the NLRB that will allow all union-eligible employees to anonymously make this choice for themselves. We urge the union organizers to submit the petition to NLRB and start the election process as soon as possible without delay.

“Every person who has a stake should have a vote.

“The NLRB conducts approximately 1200 union elections a year—it is the gold standard for union elections and we have committed to honoring the results of a fair election held by the NLRB.”

It’s worth noting that other environmental nonprofits have not required an NLRB election to recognize a union.

Today, Audubon for All announced it has filed for just such an election. “Dr. Gray said that Audubon was willing to work with the union to hold an election as soon as possible but has rebuffed our requests,” said Shyamlee Patel, a finance associate at Audubon. “Delaying an election and slowing down our organizing process will not keep us from winning a union. Refusing an expedited election only serves to perpetuate Audubon’s toxic culture where upper management ignores workers’ voices. It’s the exact reason we are organizing.”

A spokesperson gave this further explanation of the move to BirdWatching and shared it on Twitter:

“The Audubon for All union was outraged to learn late last night that Interim CEO Dr. Elizabeth Gray, Board Chair Maggie Walker, the National Board of Directors, and executive leadership of the National Audubon Society are refusing to agree to an expedited election. We proposed to hold a fast election process with a trusted third party, the American Association of Arbitration, via an online platform to ensure every worker had safe, easy access to cast their vote—especially important for our distributed staff network during a global pandemic.

“Audubon management has continually delayed this process by first refusing to voluntarily recognize our union, which has the support of the majority of eligible Audubon workers. They continue to refuse to sign a legally binding neutrality agreement.

“Now, Audubon management is moving the goalposts by refusing our proposal to hold an expedited election through an established, respected third party, claiming that they specifically requested an National Labor Relations Board election—which they did not. They simply want to delay. We expect they will raise objections at the NLRB and stall the election there as well. But we will prevail. We will continue to work as a union to build an Audubon for All.”

So what?

Why should birders, whether they are members of Audubon or not, care about management/employee relations at the largest nonprofit in the U.S. dedicated to bird conservation? I think the answer is fairly obvious, but here’s how three current employees respond:

“I’ve seen several of my coworkers let go with zero warning and watched my health premiums go up — all during a pandemic,” said Safiya Cathey, a manager in Audubon’s Grant Accounting department. “I want to be focused on combating climate change and saving birds’ habitats, not whether I’ll be able to afford a doctor’s visit. In order to fight for the birds, we need to fight for ourselves, which is why this union is so important.”

“Audubon’s mission is to support birds and their ecosystems, but the organization seems not to recognize that its employees are at the front of that fight,” said Alisa Opar, a features editor at Audubon Magazine. “We work at Audubon not only because we’re passionate about conservation and dedicated to putting our expertise to work for the birds. We can’t do that to the best of our ability when our decision to unionize is not being respected and we aren’t given a voice on the job. It’s time management realizes that.”

“Audubon needs to look at these other environmental groups organizing and ask why we aren’t standing beside them in this fight. Why is management letting us fall behind?” said Tykee James, Audubon’s Government Affairs Coordinator, who is also co-founder of #BlackBirdersWeek on Twitter and host of the On Word for Wildlife podcast. “If management really wants to usher in a new era of change, they need to support their workers and ensure a fair election process.”

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and You can reach him at

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