By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
In a hearing room at the downtown Portland offices of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), managers for the Fund for the Public Interest testified under oath Aug. 6-7 that firing union activist David Neel was business as usual.
The Fund for the Public Interest, based in Boston, is the money-raising arm of the national PIRG network and its affiliated green groups, like Environment Oregon. Neel, a telephone fundraiser in the Fund’s Portland call center, became an outspoken union activist when he and co-workers voted to join Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 7901 in October 2011. But Neel violated some Fund policies, testified Pat Wood, national director of the Fund’s Telephone Outreach Project. Neel didn’t stick to the script he was given, Wood said, and he failed to “triple confirm” a donor’s pledge. So Neel, a top fundraiser with 18 months experience at the Fund, was fired, by phone, on his way to work Nov. 6, 2012.
The NLRB — the independent federal agency that administers U.S. labor law — didn’t buy that explanation of Neel’s firing when it investigated. The agency issued a formal complaint against the Fund Feb. 27 saying Neel was fired because he engaged in union activities. Now, having heard two days of testimony, federal administrative law judge Margaret Brakebusch will decide which version of events to believe.
Neel says the Fund offered to settle the case the day before trial, offering a back pay settlement that would have totaled about $20,000 — if he would waive his right to reinstatement. But Neel wanted his day in court, and a chance at vindication.
Neel is the only fired Fund for the Public Interest call center worker to have a hearing before a judge so far, but many other union supporters have been fired since the union campaign began, including the worker who first called the union, all eight of the workers who presented the original union petition to a manager, all four workers who volunteered on the union’s initial bargaining team, and several who replaced them, for a total of at least 13 supporters fired — in a call center that employs about 25 workers.
In nearly every case, the union filed charges with the NLRB. But the agency has dismissed most of them. CWA has had a tough time proving that defeating the union was a motive in the firings, because the Fund fires workers at a prodigious rate for all kinds of reasons.
If that surprises you, you wouldn’t be the first. Neel, 36 and a father of three, was an idealist when he began working at the Fund. He believed in his work — dialing from the Portland call center to raise money for groups like Illinois PIRG, PennEnvironment, and the National Environmental Law Center. And he was good at his job, exceeding fundraising quotas, and rising to the Fund’s top pay rate of $14.50 an hour.
So when co-workers talked about unionizing, Neel thought that given the progressive values the Fund espouses, managers wouldn’t object very much if workers voted to unionize.
“Everyone deserves a fair shot at a good job and a secure future.” Or so goes the phone rap for Fair Share, one of the Fund-affiliated groups Neel raised money for.
But not workers at the Fund. Fund phone callers’ pay can drop several dollars an hour in a single pay period if they fall below fundraising targets. And if they fail to meet a separate benchmark two weeks in a row, they are fired, no matter how many years they’ve worked there.
In 18 months of negotiations over a first-ever union contract for its two dozen Portland call center employees, the Fund held fast to those policies, agreeing only to minor concessions — limiting pay cuts to $2 an hour per pay period, and giving workers a third missed-quota week, once a year, before termination. But the Fund insisted that the call center remain an “at will” workplace. For over a year, the Fund also insisted, as is the law in “right-to-work” states, that its call center be an “open shop,” in which union dues would be strictly voluntary. In June, the Fund appeared to relent, agreeing that workers who don’t want to join the union would still have to pay the union’s costs to represent them. But as spelled out by the Fund, the union would have to collect the fees, and workers would face no workplace consequence for failing to pay.
Call center workers voted to reject all these terms, and a new round of bargaining is scheduled to begin Aug. 28.
BACK STORY: Previous Labor Press reports on the union campaign at the Fund for the Public Interest.