Progressive organizing group faces worker-rights backlash

In NLRB charge, union accuses Wisconsin Voices of firing employees to discourage union drive

Wisconsin Voices workers at a Fair Maps fundraiser earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Voices Workers)

When workers at Wisconsin Voices told the progressive organizing and fundraising group that they had formed a staff union, they hoped the group’s leaders would accept their choice.

Wisconsin Voices has for years partnered with dozens of like-minded grass-roots activist groups involved in voter registration, racial justice, climate change and other issues. Many of its partner organizations have close ties with organized labor, and some have collective bargaining agreements with their own employees.

According to current and former Wisconsin Voices staffers, after a large majority of the organization’s 17 employees signed up to form a union, the Wisconsin Voices management rejected their bid for voluntary recognition. Then, on Nov. 11, the organization fired six employees.

This week the union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Milwaukee office of the National Labor Relations Board, accusing Wisconsin Voices of terminating five of the employees in retaliation for the union drive. (One of the six was not included in the charge because the individual’s employment contract stated it ended at the conclusion of the 2020 election cycle, according to a union official.)

The fired employees were told they had lost their jobs because the organization was “restructuring,” but that explanation didn’t make sense to Debra Gary, who was one of the people terminated. “I truly believe it was because we asked for a union,” Gary says. “There was still work, so that can’t be it. And there’s still the same type of work.”

The firings and the nonprofit organization’s other responses to the union drive have sparked an outpouring of support from labor unions and other social justice groups on behalf of the Wisconsin Voices workers.

A statement that the Wisconsin Voices administration and board of directors published on Facebook two days after the firings declared that the organization has “always supported our team’s efforts to be heard, as well as their right to unionize” and said that would be decided in a secret-ballot election overseen by the NLRB. 

The statement drew nearly 40 replies — virtually all of them criticizing the organization.

The Wisconsin Examiner contacted Wisconsin Voices interim director Debra Huntley via email for comment but did not receive a reply; this story will be updated if the organization responds.

Leadership changes

The union organizing drive at Wisconsin Voices followed a period of instability at the top of the organization earlier this year.

In June the executive director left. At first, according to current and former employees along with insiders close to the Wisconsin Voices organization, the board of directors took over the executive director’s tasks, but the board’s communication with the staff reportedly broke down. The group subsequently hired an interim director while conducting a search for new leaders.

Wisconsin Voices union organizers collectively published a statement about what happened in an essay on Medium titled, “Union Busting is not a Progressive Value.”

“Amid adjusting our work plans for the pandemic, responding to the uprisings after the murder of multiple BIPOC people in our communities, and transitioning between being led by our former ED [executive director], the board, and then the Interim Executive Director, we have worked extra long hours, adjusted internal operations countless times upon demand, and performed work outside the scope of the roles for which we were hired,” the Nov. 11 statement says. “All this while being left in the shadows about all policy and staffing decisions at Wisconsin Voices, and being given confusing and sometimes contradictory directives on a myriad of issues, ranging from expenditures to schedules to paid time off to how we report our work hours.”

Employees asked questions to clarify directives they received from the board as internal policies changed, first under the board’s direct management of the organization and subsequently under the interim director. “Instead of engaging in an open dialogue, we were repeatedly told we would face ‘disciplinary action’ if we didn’t comply with directives without question,” the statement says. “When asked what ‘disciplinary action’ specified, they refused to say.”

A decision to freeze “our multi-million dollar department budgets” two months before the Nov. 3 election appeared to have been given “without a clear understanding of what our work fully entails and the flexibility our partners required us to have during such a tumultuous election,” the statement adds.

Among the board’s actions the statement cites was a decision to end a set of policies that staff leaders wrote at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — policies that included relief pay, flexible leave and work schedules, and that the staff had collectively agreed to. “Without ever consulting us or acknowledging our plan, we were told in the fall by our board that we were moving back to the way things were done pre-COVID,” the statement says — exacerbating stress among staff members.

Employees asked board members to attend the weekly staff meetings that employees held, but “they didn’t communicate with us,” Gary says. “They didn’t come to any meetings.”

Seeking a union

As dissatisfaction grew among the employees, some decided to seek union representation and contacted the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 9 in Milwaukee. The union represents a variety of clerical and office workers, including hourly employees at Northwestern Mutual Life in Milwaukee.

A number the employers with which Local 9 has contracts are labor unions, where it represents clerical employees and other staff members. Local 9 also has contracts with some activist organizations, most notably Wisconsin Citizen Action, where it has represented the employees for more than two decades.

Wisconsin Voices has a diverse staff. “We thought about how unions had helped minorities in the past and what benefits unions would have,” says Gary.

The employees met with David Rehberg, the Local 9 business manager, in October, and a large majority of them signed union authorization cards, Rehberg says. He wrote to the Wisconsin Voices interim director and the board chair at the time, asking them to voluntarily recognize the union as the employees’ bargaining agent on the basis of the support shown in recognition of the union.

At first, “I didn’t hear anything back,” Rehberg says. Then he received a letter from an  attorney at the management law firm von Briesen and Roper that the organization had hired. The lawyer “said they would be in touch the week of Nov. 9,” the union official says.

On Nov. 11, according to current and former employees, the director and an outside consultant who was described as a “human resources strategist” held Zoom meetings with employees. Gary says several asked to meet as a group and were denied.

The six people who were fired were told of their termination during those meetings. According to the Wisconsin Voices Workers Medium statement, two of the six were Black and two were Latinx, with one of them an undocumented person unable to collect unemployment or obtain health insurance.

Debra Gary’s job with the organization included managing voter registration outreach ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Because she was fired, “I didn’t get to finish any of the debriefs with the 10 partners I was working with” on that project, she says.

Doing the work wasn’t just a job for her. “It was more of a passion,” Gary says. “It was a gift to be able to help. I was very proud of doing what we were doing.”

Backlash from allies

In the days that followed the firings, labor unions were quick to announce their support for the fired workers. “The hypocrisy of Wisconsin Voices, or any progressive organization that engages in union-busting, is appalling,” stated Paul Spink, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in Wisconsin. “We cannot stand for social and economic justice one day, and then cast aside the people who help us achieve success the very next. Management should be ashamed, as should anyone who continues to fund or participate in their work, until they rectify the harm they caused.”

In a Nov. 13 open letter, Kim Kohlhaas, president of the American Federation of Teachers Wisconsin branch, told the Wisconsin Voices Board, “I am disheartened when right-wing corporations engage in union busting — to see anyone who calls themselves ‘progressive’ brazenly embrace these tactics is appalling.”

“It’s sickening what’s going on at Wisconsin Voices,” Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and a former member of the Wisconsin Voices board, tells the Wisconsin Examiner.

Other public statements supporting the union drive came from the state AFL-CIO, the Milwaukee Area Service & Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH), and Veterans for Peace.

Also on Nov. 13, Wisconsin Voices’ national affiliate, State Voices, sent an email message that went to allied organizations and others. A copy was obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner.

“Although State Voices was not involved in any decision to terminate these employees, we are initiating a process to review these issues. During our review, we will suspend our relationship and affiliation with Wisconsin Voices.  We will also offer support to the Wisconsin Voices workers that have been affected,” stated the message, sent by State Voices CEO Alexis Anderson-Reed.

(The Wisconsin Examiner has asked the national organization for comment. This story will be updated if a response is received.)

Rebuffed in its request for voluntary recognition, OPEIU Local 9 is now petitioning the NLRB for a formal representation election, Rehberg says. The election petition is in addition to the unfair labor practice charge. 

But while the Wisconsin Voices Facebook statement last month said that  the organization would support the will of employees in such an election, pro-union workers and their supporters outside the organization are watching warily.

All of the critics who clapped back at the Facebook post criticized the firings. Most urged the organization to hire back the fired workers and to welcome the union outright. 

Many found the statement — with its emphasis on an NLRB election rather than voluntary recognition — reminiscent of the kind of language that employers use who are openly fighting union drives while they speak of honoring workers’ union rights. 

“This is how anti-union lawyers write anti-union letters while trying to sound like they are reasonable and pro-worker,” wrote Jamie Lucas, who is the director of a healthcare workers union, in his reply. “It fails to mention that you can voluntarily recognize the union that an overwhelming majority of your employees openly support, but you’ve chosen not to.”

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.