Busting Unions

Last March, Tamara Rettino answered a help-wanted ad for Greenpeace. ”Hiring activists,“ it read. ”I thought I could work my way up to the Greenpeace office in Amsterdam,“ Rettino recalls. Once hired, though, she learned she wasn‘t working for Greenpeace at all, but for the Fund for Public Interest Research, which contracts out its staff at 10 offices nationwide to raise money for Greenpeace.

And, it seems, activist employees weren’t actually all that welcome: When the overworked and underpaid directors of the Fund‘s L.A. Greenpeace Project lodged a complaint with the state labor board and informed their bosses they wanted to form a union, they quickly found themselves out of work. A week after the complaint was filed, the office was closed.

The work itself was difficult, with long hours in the sun at places like Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, struggling to convince passersby to pay to join Greenpeace, often working extra unpaid hours to get post cards signed to fight offshore oil drilling. Most of the staff, though, was idealistic enough not to mind. ”I‘ve got a master’s degree and I was earning eight to nine dollars an hour,“ says Brande Jackson, the L.A. office‘s former assistant director, ”but wages weren’t even an issue.“

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What was at issue was the Fund‘s consistent failure to reimburse staffers for out-of-pocket expenses -- Jackson says she was owed about $500 for gas and office supplies -- and its denial of promised health benefits to most employees. Rettino says she began asking for health coverage after four months on the job. When she quit in mid-January, one week before the staff was locked out, she still hadn’t received coverage. ”I had a really bad kidney infection,“ Rettino says. ”Because I had no health benefits, I couldn‘t get health care. It just got worse and worse. Last week I ended up in the hospital on IV antibiotics.“ (The Fund has since agreed to reimburse her for her hospital bills, Rettino says, but only after she threatened to take them to court.) Dan Binaei, the former office director, says he tried for months to get benefits for himself and his staff. ”I was given vague answers, the runaround.“

Finally, on January 14, directors Binaei and Jackson requested a petition to unionize from the state labor board, e-mailed it to regional director Ben Flamm and Ed Johnson, the national canvass director for the Fund for Public Interest, and told them they intended to unionize. On the evening of January 22, as Binaei was closing the office, he says, Flamm and Johnson, who are based in Berkeley and Minneapolis, respectively, walked in. ”I was totally shocked,“ Binaei says. Johnson, he says, told him, ”We no longer have trust in you to run this office. We feel you no longer trust the organization. You’re terminated as of right now.“ Jackson was also fired, informed in a voice mail the next morning that her ”employee status [had] changed.“

That night, Flamm and Johnson packed up the office. By morning it had been cleaned out. The locks had been changed and a note left on the door said simply that the office was closed. To date, Jackson says, she has not been given a reason for her firing.

Johnson and Flamm both refused to comment on the office closing, citing ”confidential personnel matters.“ According to Greenpeace spokesperson Kymberly Escobar, the environmentalist organization is ”looking into the matter with the Fund for Public Research. We‘re encouraging them to do the right thing.“

In the meantime, Binaei and Jackson have complained to the state labor board about the Fund for Public Interest’s union-busting, and intend to take the Fund to court for wrongful termination. ”Nobody‘s out to damage Greenpeace,“ Jackson says. ”It was our intention to make this organization run better through that union. They chose to bury their heads.“