Feds claim Defenders of Wildlife unlawfully fired union-organizing staffer

The environmental nonprofit’s work environment is under scrutiny after multiple unfair labor submissions.


On October 20, the federal government’s labor regulator issued a formal complaint against Defenders of Wildlife, a progressive environmental nonprofit, for wrongfully terminating a staff member who was trying to organize a union. 

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) charges that Defenders of Wildlife had engaged in “unlawful conduct” when it fired Erica Prather, a Tucson, Arizona-based organizer, in February. Defenders is well-known for its work on behalf of endangered spaces, including wolves and polar bears.

National Labor Relations Board document charging Defenders of Wildlife with unfair labor practices.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

Prather — an early organizer of the Defenders union, which formed in 2021 — said that the nonprofit saw her as a troublemaker and had been looking for reasons to fire her. Her firing, she said, was a “punch in the gut.” While she is pleased that the NLRB charges, Prather remains upset at the green group’s hostility toward labor organizing in the workplace. 

“You unionize a place because you love your work and you love your workplace,” she said. “I stayed at Defenders because I cared about it, and I cared about the mission.” 

Recent years have seen a wave of labor organizing at environmental organizations. As High Country News reported last year, employees have formed unions at groups including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA, the Sunrise Movement, the Center for Biological Diversity and the National Audubon Society. This tracks with a broader boom in labor organizing at nonprofits, according to a Washington Post report, which called nonprofit organizing a bright spot for the labor movement. This fall, a Gallup poll found that public approval for labor unions hit a 50-year high in the U.S. 

At most of these nonprofits, staff tried to push their organization’s leadership to live up to their progressive goals and improve pay, benefits and diversity standards. As the Defenders union representatives put it in a recent statement: “People who contribute to organizations like Defenders expect them to live up to principles that they might not expect Apple, Starbucks, or Amazon to uphold.” 

At Defenders, however, the leadership resisted the staff’s union push. In July 2021, when CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark was presented with a request to voluntarily recognize the union – more than 75% of the eligible staff had signed union cards – she refused to do so (several other prominent green groups voluntarily recognized staff unions). 

“You unionize a place because you love your work and you love your workplace. I stayed at Defenders because I cared about it, and I cared about the mission.” 

Since then, the NLRB has sided with the staff union, Defenders United, in four Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) submissions to the agency, according to the union. These include an incident where Clark refused to provide basic information, such as salaries, benefit details and pay rates, to the union during contract negotiations. Clark also demanded that the union sign a non-disclosure agreement. A separate ULP accused the company of trying to bypass the union altogether and negotiate directly with employees. In Prather’s case, the NLRB wrote that Defenders was accused of violating federal law by “discouraging membership in a labor organization.” 

In a statement, Defenders press team said that the organization respects the right of staff to unionize. “We continue to bargain with the Union in good faith to negotiate a contract that supports our staff and ensures a vibrant, healthy workplace to advance our organization’s mission to protect imperiled plants and animals,” Defenders said in the statement.

Since the staff’s collective bargaining began, Defenders has employed Littler Mendelson, a law firm known for helping companies develop “union avoidance” strategies. Starbucks and Apple, among other large corporations, have recently used the firm to combat labor organizing.

“In my 30 years of negotiating, I’ve never encountered a more hostile management team,” said Sascha Eisner, a representative for The Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 2, which represents the Defenders staff in bargaining.  

Last February, Prather was trying on wedding dresses with her mother when her union representative texted her. Prather had been placed on suspension earlier that week. Now, the representative informed her, she was going to be fired. 

Erica Prather receives a text about her firing during her wedding dress fitting in February.
Courtesy Erica Prather

The company informed her that she could not visit the office to collect her things; the lock on her office door had been changed. “It was unfair and gross,” she said in a phone interview. She was later allowed to retrieve her things.

According to documents shared with High Country News, Defenders justified Prather’s dismissal based on an early February community Zoom call on the topic of climate grief. A volunteer who attended the meeting complained to the organization that Prather had mistreated her and removed her from the call. An internal report said that Prather had been rude and unprofessional. 

But according to several witness statements submitted on Prather’s behalf, the volunteer in question had been disruptive, and one of Prather’s fellow organizers — a former Defenders employee — had removed the volunteer from the meeting. One witness statement described the volunteer as “derailing, confrontational, and confusing,” according to the document. “After she left the meeting, we went on to have an interesting and productive conversation,” the witness stated. 

After news of Prather’s dismissal broke, many employees were upset. Letters and emails praising Prather’s organizing work poured in. “It is very concerning to me that a disruptive individual can lead directly to an employee’s termination,” Aaron Hall, an aquatic ecologist, wrote in an email to the organization’s leadership. “It is a shame to see Defenders lose such a dedicated employee as Erica under these circumstances.”

“It is very concerning to me that a disruptive individual can lead directly to an employee’s termination.”

Responding to emailed questions, the Defenders press team stated that: “Defenders stands by our decision with regard to the termination of employment at issue in the Complaint. We did not discriminate or retaliate against the former employee on the basis of any union activity.”

Workplace culture has been a persistent issue at Defenders. A deeply reported investigation by E&E News that included interviews with more than 20 employees found a “nightmare” work environment. The investigation noted that employees existed in fear of Clark, the CEO, who had a reputation for firing people for small offenses. According to Prather, it was this sort of arbitrary management style — in addition to wanting better pay and benefits — that led to the union organizing. (Clark’s 2020 salary was approximately $522,000, according to financial documents.) 

This workplace culture contributes to a high turnover rate, which sits at 32% for 2022, according to data collected by Defenders United. That figure has more than doubled since 2019, according to the union. The union, which has also tracked departures, claims that 138 people have left the organization since January 2019. In a statement, Defenders described turnover and staffing issues as “national challenges” that the company is working to address “like everyone else.”

The recent turmoil has prompted concern among the environmental group’s allies about Defenders’ ability to fulfill its mission. In a 2021 letter addressed to Clark, U.S. Rep. Anna Kirkpatrick, an Arizona Democrat, praised the organization’s “tireless dedication to the preservation of some of our most precious habitats and species.” She urged Clark to voluntarily recognize the union, writing that Defenders’ mission “can only be improved by supporting your workers.” 

Erica Prather photographed when she was cleaning out her Tucson, Arizona, office in March.
Courtesy Erica Prather

Following Prather’s firing, the Defenders of Wildlife club at the University of Arizona informed the organization that it would be dissolving the campus chapter. Prather had worked with several of the students via the Arizona Youth Climate Coalition. The letter expressed outrage at her dismissal and at Defenders’ refusal to recognize the union. 

“We remain committed to promoting conservation and advocating for wildlife,” the students wrote, “but will not do so for an organization that does not support their employees or fair labor practices.” 

Defenders United is still in the early stages of collective bargaining with the organization. Union representatives called the ongoing negotiations “incredibly rough-going and contentious,” in an email.  

“We remain committed to promoting conservation and advocating for wildlife, but will not do so for an organization that does not support their employees or fair labor practices.” 

As for Prather, she recently started a new job with WildEarth Guardians, where she will focus on working to conserve the Gila River in Arizona. But the legal struggle with her former employer is not over. When the NLRB filed its complaint — alleging that Prather had been wrongfully terminated — Defenders had the opportunity to admit wrongdoing, and to reach a settlement with Prather or reinstate her at her old job. But after some negotiations, no resolution was reached. This led to the formal complaint this week. It also prompts a trial, which will be heard by an NLRB administrative law judge in February 2023.

Prather is preparing for her hearing while she learns the ropes at her new job. She remains frustrated at how she was treated by Defenders, an environmental group whose stated mission she still very much believes in. 

“I thought it'd be the Koch Brothers that took me out,” she said, “not my own organization.” 

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly characterized the legal significance of the NLRB’s complaint, and the process for addressing it. It has also been updated to clarify that Erica Prather was ultimately allowed to retrieve her belongings. The spelling of Defenders’ law firm was also corrected.

Nick Bowlin is a correspondent at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editorSee our letters to the editor policy. 

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