Workers at an animal protection group want a union. The CEO, not so much.
The dispute is not about money, but about social justice and workplace culture at the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund can say, with little fear of contradiction, that all its clients are innocent. It has sued a California dairy farm, alleging that Dick Van Dam Dairy treated cows and calves cruelly. It has sued the owner of an eight-year-old horse named Justice, accusing her of neglecting the animal. It has served notice that it intends to sue a Pennsylvania roadside zoo that is confining wild animals, including a ring-tailed lemur, black leopard and gray wolves,. For four decades the nonprofit ALDF has pioneered the field of animal law, using the courts to go after people who abuse animals.
Now the tables have turned. A majority of the 70 or so staff members at the ALDF have signed up to form a union, putting the organization’s leaders on the defensive. The union, called ALDF United, has affiliated with a small but fast-growing union called the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU), which, as its name suggests, represents professionals at nonprofits. In December, ALDF United filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board after Stephen Wells, the nonprofit’s executive director and CEO, told the staff that management would not recognize the union.
“The union issue dropped out of the sky on us,” Wells tells me, referring not only to the leadership team but also to staff members who had heard nothing about the union and now oppose it. Organizers gave ALDF two weeks to respond to their request for recognition, during a crucial time for fundraising, he says: “None of us had experience with unions. We were in a mad scramble.”
Elizabeth Putsche, ALDF’s communications director, says management wants to air all sides of the issue: “People need to understand the pros and cons (of unionization) and make an educated decision….Unions were not created for nonprofits.”
ALDF turned for help to Ogletree Deakins (“Employers and lawyers, working together”), a big national firm that specializes in labor law. It did so, Wells says, because the firm had done pro bono work for ALDF and because an Ogletree partner had served on the ALDF board.
That decision inflamed matters. Ogletree recently worked with managers to try to block unions at two small nonprofits, the ACLU of Kansas and the Scholars Strategy Network. Staff at both nonprofits ultimately unionized.
ALDF workers say they, too, will prevail. “The whole process has been disappointing,” an insider tells me. “It’s very adversarial at this point.”
Katie Barrows, communications director of the NPEU, says: “We have units at 40 nonprofit organizations and of those only Scholars Strategy Network, Feminist Majority, and now ALDF have forced us to file for a NLRB election instead of recognizing their staff union voluntarily after a super majority asked for it.”
If ALDF United wins recognition, it would become the first union in the U.S. animal protection movement. Many animal rights groups depend on the labor of young and idealistic people, most of them women, who in the past have been underpaid, overworked or worse.
The results? Sexual harassment scandals at the Humane Society of the U.S. and Mercy for Animals. Unprofessional behavior from an animal-rights pioneer. Abusive conduct at a farm sanctuary. The dreary, dysfunctional workplace at Alley Cat Allies.
The ALDF is different, all agree. “There are crazy animal places to work, and this isn’t one of them,” one staffer says. By email, another tells me: “I love ALDF. I just think things could be better if staff had a greater voice in the organization.” None of the dissident workers agreed to be identified, saying they feared retribution.
One staffer tells me:
I also love the idea of this kind of unionizing effort spreading to the rest of the animal rights movement. I think that the movement, as a whole, has a long way to come on the treatment of workers.
At ALDF, the union supporters and managers who spoke to me agree that pay and benefits are fair, although the lawyers who work there could probably earn more in private practice. The nonprofit pays premiums for health, vision and dental insurance, contributes to retirement accounts and offers paid sabbaticals. That said, some lower-paid employees reportedly struggle to make ends meet because ALDF is based in Sonoma County, one of the most expensive places to live in California.
So what is the unionization drive about? Power, as much as anything else, it appears.
“A seat at the table”
Union supporters describe the ALDF as “uber-hierarchical,” with decision-making concentrated at the top. “That is not conducive to a healthy workplace, especially in the nonprofit world,” one says. “Our goal is to make this a more collaborative place to work.”
Another tells me: “We need a voice. We need a seat at the table. We need to change the power dynamics so they will have to care about what we think.”
Race is another issue. The organizing effort took root shortly after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last May. In response, ALDF issued a tone deaf statement on Facebook that drew an analogy between the “excessive force” that is deployed against animals and the police use of force against “human victims” that is “often based upon the color of one’s skin.” (The word “Black” did not appear in the statement.) It appears, though it’s hard to know, that ALDF was loathe to offend donors by publicly allying itself with Black Lives Matter. A conservative supporter of ALDF responded to the Facebook post by writing: “I want ALDF to be the wonderful organization it is for animals and not bring social human problems into it.”
The statement became a flashpoint inside ALDF. One employee says: “Staff made it really clear to management that we expected more.” They didn’t feel heard, which raised questions about power in the workplace. Some say ALDF needs a more diverse workforce. (Wells agrees completely, he says.) On a webpage explaining why they are organizing, ALDF United says:
Together, we will create a workplace that is anti-racist and more cooperative, equitable, inclusive, just, respectful, and transparent.
The organizing drive comes as other animal groups wrestle with race. In a deeply-reported Civil Eats article headlined Is the Vegan Movement Ready to Reckon With Racism, Charlie Mitchell writes that white-led vegan and animal rights groups, including ALDF, are in “the early stages of a glacially paced journey away from systems that have often excluded people of color at best, and denigrated their movements at worst.”
In a long telephone interview, Wells says ALDF struggled to navigate the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter protests. “It was so emotional,” he says. “People were really upset.”
In the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd killing, ALDF pulled all of its fundraising appeals for a time and cut back on social media to allow the calls for racial justice to take center stage. The organization has engaged the firm of A. Breeze Harper, an antiracism scholar and editor of Sistah Vegan, a collection of writings by Black female vegans, to do diversity training as well as an audit of ALDF designed to help it attract more people of color. ALDF is also talking with law schools at historically black universities to introduce animal-law programs or fellowships.
In an email to the staff, Wells expressed his personal beliefs in strong terms.
“Sadly, violence and murder of Black Americans at the hands of police is all-too-common as is a lack of meaningful consequences for law enforcement perpetrators,” he wrote. “This moral and legal outrage has justly sparked massive worldwide protests.”
But as ALDF’s CEO, Wells says, he has to be “rigidly focused on what’s best for our mission.”
“We are relentlessly nonpartisan,” he says, “and in the Trump era, that has been a bitter pill for some of our staff to follow. It does not serve animals for us to be slamming the door in the face of people whose other ideas we disagree with.”
A small-business owner who moved to Alaska and worked on the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Wells was executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance before joining ALDF in 1999. He has led ALDF through a period of growth since succeeding the group’s founder, Joyce Tischler, as CEO in 2006. According to its latest tax return, ALDF brought in $15.2 million in 2019 and Wells was paid $209,788.
Even after our talk, it’s not entirely clear to me why Wells and his allies have decided to oppose the union. Why spend donor funds and staff time to try to stop ALDF United, I wonder? Doesn’t that distract from the mission?
Putsche, the communications director, says no: “From the counsel we’ve received, the financial implications of having a union are significantly larger than the immediate expense of taking the time to evaluate unions, evaluate the law and work with our staff to address their concerns, questions and suggestions.”
In a story headlined Anti-Union Progressives for The American Prospect, veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse writes: “Like many corporations, some progressive institutions see labor unions as an obstacle to smooth decision-making and efficiency and as an irritant that will push up employment costs.” That may be, but workers at nonprofit hospitals and universities including Harvard, Yale and Stanford have been union members for decades, and seen their wages and working conditions improve.
About one thing, both sides at ALDF can agree: It would be a shame if the fight over unionization hampers ALDF’s good work on behalf of animals.
“We have an incredible mission, an incredible legacy and, most importantly, an incredible staff,” says an employee who’s unhappy about management’s stance. “They’re just delaying the inevitable.”