By Noah Wass
When workers at the Center for Sustainable Economy (CSE) went public with their union, the last thing they expected was for the progressive think tank to hire a union-busting law firm and threaten to fire one of their own. But that’s exactly what happened after all five staff members at the Portland-based climate justice think tank announced their plan to join Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 7901 at a June 24 staff meeting.
CSE management responded two days later, saying they can’t recognize the union because one of the union supporters, staff attorney Nick Caleb, is a supervisor and thus can’t legally be included in the bargaining unit.
Management then suspended Caleb until further notice, threatened to fire him if he talks with co-workers or the public about the union, and warned him they may file an ethics complaint against him with the Oregon State Bar. All that’s according to a June 30 unfair labor practice charge CWA Local 7901 filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
CSE also hired Bullard Law, which is infamous in Portland labor circles as a law firm specializing in union avoidance.
None of that sat well with CSE board member Jeri Jimenez, a former union organizer and former board member of Portland Jobs with Justice. Jimenez says that during a board conference call, board members had agreed to send a letter formally recognizing the union. The next time they heard from senior management, board members were instructed not to speak to anyone about the union, and were notified that CSE had paid $7,500 to retain Bullard Law.
Hearing that, Jimenez resigned from the board June 30.
“I don’t know how we got from voluntarily accepting the union to not supporting them,” Jimenez wrote in her resignation letter … You operated out of fear instead of trust.”
CSE Director Daphne Wysham said in an email that CSE respects its employees’ rights to form a union, “if that is what they choose.
“The law sets forth a process for that to happen, and it is our understanding that in this case the correct legal process was not followed. Those issues are currently being litigated in front of the NLRB, and we will abide by the outcome of that process.”
“Whether they actually believe that or whether it’s a convenient legal argument, I don’t know,” said Local 7901 President A.J. Mendoza. “But that is not a response indicative of a ‘high road’ employer.”
An online petition signed by community supporters called on CSE to drop Bullard Law and recognize the union.
The bad publicity may have had some effect. Wysham told the Labor Press by phone July 13 that CSE has dropped Bullard Law and will be seeking new legal counsel that is not anti-union.
[MORE: For updates, follow the Union for a Sustainable Economy here.]
[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story referred to Jeri Jimenez as a current member of the Portland Jobs With Justice board; she’s a former board member.]