An update from the board on unionizing at SEACC

Written by SEACC

August 19, 2023

At SEACC, we often talk about our purpose and values in the context of our mission: protecting the special lands and waters of Southeast Alaska. We don’t often need to talk about our values in the context of how we do our work — how we hold each other up, supporters, staff and board — to make it all possible.

We’ve realized we are overdue to reach out to our community to review the past eight months and update you on what’s been happening behind the scenes at SEACC, in particular with regards to unionization. Let’s start from the beginning.

On Monday, December 12, 2022, four of our eleven staff submitted a letter to our Executive Director stating they wished to form a union and requesting voluntary recognition of that union by the board. Late that night, the four staff announced their union push on new social media handles, going public just hours after the board learned of their desires.

That Friday, December 16, the SEACC Board met to determine a course of action and our Executive Director, at the direction of the board, responded by the deadline that the board had not yet had enough time to consider the implications of unionizing, but was working to contact a labor attorney to be able to respond to the request the following week.

On Monday, December 19, the four employees notified the ED that they had formally petitioned for union recognition through the National Labor Relations Board, effectively ending any opportunity for voluntary recognition or direct communication with the board and ED, and inserting SEACC in an unknown and restrictive unionization process designed for large for-profit corporations with substantial staff teams, not small regional non-profits of eleven.

In response to the petition filed on December 19, SEACC leadership, both board and staff, sought expertise and counsel in the form of a lawyer, in an effort to understand the fast-developing situation. As days and then weeks passed, we learned our six union-eligible staff were themselves divided about unionizing and, as our obligation as a board is to support our entire staff, during that time we and our ED moved with great caution and deliberation. Our Executive Director and Board spent those months learning about our legal obligations under the National Labor Relations Act and the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board, and endeavored as a group to educate ourselves and come to internal alignment on how to best move forward, while actively responding to and following required National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules and processes.

SEACC leadership needed to fully understand how unionizing might impact SEACC, and also to act carefully so that we did not inadvertently violate national labor laws, which made it particularly complicated to communicate both externally, and internally. Our Board was also uncomfortable with ceding control over SEACC to the large and powerful organizations Communications Workers of America and its parent, AFL-CIO, as at the time, the AFL-CIO had just recently endorsed the controversial Willow Project on the North Slope, in northern Alaska, despite an Indigenous community’s and environmentalists’ strong objections and concerns. This is part of the reason we explored whether the NLRB would be determined to have lawful jurisdiction over a small, regional, informational advocacy nonprofit such as SEACC.

During these weeks and months, most of our non-executive staff, including two union-eligible employees and the three program managers who had been excluded from the original unionizing process, approached the four employees who initiated the effort. This group of five employees requested a reset and a return to direct negotiations with the board for voluntary recognition, to avoid further legal expenses and divisions within the SEACC community and staff body. Unfortunately, the initial four unionizing employees rejected this overture. This was done without the Board’s knowledge at the time, and did not involve the ED.

After a lengthy delay, the NLRB finally ruled in May of 2023 that it does have jurisdiction. Despite lingering concerns regarding political influence, and in an effort to support our staff, we decided not to appeal that decision and to allow unionizing to move forward without delay.

We regret that NLRB regulations kept us from helping our supporters more fully understand what was happening internally as things developed this past winter and spring, and want to clarify any misunderstandings or inaccurate information with this email. Unclear and inaccurate public communications by our four-unionizing staff in late December further complicated the public’s understanding of what was taking place at SEACC and especially the organization’s position on the events that were underway, but the Board and ED were very reluctant at that time to articulate that fact and risk being perceived as criticizing any of our staff for exploring a union.

SEACC strives to remain in good stead with all our staff, the new union, and our supporters. Our excellent pay and benefits policies long predate the effort to unionize and include competitive compensation; 3 weeks of paid time off for new employees, rising to 4 weeks after the first year; an annual office closure for an additional week of paid vacation between Christmas and New Year’s Day; 96 hours of annual sick leave; healthcare with premium fully paid by SEACC; a health savings accounts with an annual $1000 contribution from the organization; a 5 percent 401k match after a year of employment, and both remote work and flexible work plans that allow our employees to fully enjoy the seasonality that makes Southeast such a special place to live and work. That the union never clearly articulated specific demands related to these benefits and their compensation only served to make the board more cautious about moving into uncharted territory.

Beginning before the union election had even taken place, one by one, the four employees who initially started this unionization process gave notice that they were leaving SEACC. These were voluntary separations, not terminations. By June, SEACC was in the unfortunate situation of being subject to a “union” with no active members, no shop steward, a parent union that has yet to make an appearance in Alaska, and no way forward for “collective bargaining,” a situation in which we still find ourselves.

We deeply regret that the legal restrictions of the NLRB kept us from helping our supporters more fully understand what was happening internally, as the unionization experience unfolded over the last 8 months. We respect the right of all workers to organize into a union if they wish to. And yet we must acknowledge that this unionizing effort and subsequent departure of all unionizing staff has had significant impacts on our remaining seven employees’ morale and capacity.

Our staff, unionized or not, continue striving to carry out SEACCs mission daily: to conserve the health and life of the Tongass rainforest, protect its special places, and help sustain the livelihoods and traditional ways of its people. We appreciate your continued support as we’ve traveled through this difficult period together, and especially your support for our staff. They are all eager to get back to focusing on their work, and to strengthening their relationships with one another and with you.

Following this email, should you wish to ask specific questions or share feedback and reflections on the unionization process at SEACC, we welcome you to reach out to our three board co-chairs directly at BoardChair@seacc.org.

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Board of Directors

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