Lambda Legal poised to unionize amid staff discontent

By : Chris Johnson OF THE WASHINGTON BLADE, COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL LGBT MEDIA ASSOCIATION
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ABOVE: Employees at Lambda Legal are seeking to unionize amid discontent under the leadership of Rachel Tiven. Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key

Employees at Lambda Legal have launched a unionization effort amid frustration over cuts to benefits and concerns over the leadership style of CEO Rachel Tiven, the Washington Blade has learned.

A petition was filed on Nov. 21 before the National Labor Relations Board, which supervises elections for labor union representation, as noted on the U.S. agency’s website. Ballots for the election were set for distribution to employees on Wednesday and counting will take place Dec. 29.

The petition calls for unionization within the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, Local 32035, which bills itself as a union for more than 2,600 news, information and labor-organization workers for 27 different employers, mostly in the metropolitan Washington and Baltimore areas.

Bruce Jett, organizing consultant for the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, said each employee’s reason for supporting the petition may be different, but “any time any organization seeks to organize, there are concerns about having a voice in the workplace.”

“And there are concerns about top-down accountability, there are concerns about transparency on several different levels, and so, I think collective bargaining and organizing brings these things into focus,” Jett said.

Tempering his remarks, Jett said Lambda “does great work, and has great people that love the work they do and will continue the great work, but this is something that, I think, the employees feel will produce a better Lambda Legal coming out of the election.”

Jett said he couldn’t get into examples of employee concerns about accountability and transparency at Lambda Legal on the basis he isn’t at liberty nor “aware enough to give you examples.”

Representing employees in the effort to unionize is Robert Paul, an attorney with the D.C.-based law firm Zwerdling, Paul, Kahn & Wolly who deferred to the Washington-Baltimore News Guild for comment.

Two sources familiar with the environment at Lambda, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cited a number of reasons over the course of the year for the discontent, which they said has led employees to unionize for the first time since Lambda was founded in 1973.

“The reason that we’re forming a union at the moment is because we believe that there are a lot of changes both internally and externally, and they’re happening at a very rapid pace and it’s clear that the voices of those who are working at Lambda Legal that aren’t in senior management need to be heard, and they need to be at the table,” one source said.

Key among the reasons for unhappiness and the motivation to unionize, the sources said, were cuts to employment health and retirement benefits.

The retirement benefits, one source said, once consisted of employer contributions of 10 percent of employee salary. That benefit was frozen in November and December to contributions of zero percent, the source said, and “there’s talk” of it going down to as little as two percent permanently.

For the health benefits, the cost of employee contributions went up with three weeks for employees to make a decision on the new options, sources said.

“The cuts really affected…the lowest income folks and their access to health care,” one source said. “For an organization that prides itself and employees who care deeply about making sure everybody has access to the care that they need, it seemed very disconnected to make these drastic cuts and letting us know with only three weeks to go what those would be.”

Tiven said in response to the concerns raised by staffers that Lambda does “absolutely respect and support the right of Lambda Legal’s staff to organize.”

“Our staff is our most valuable asset in our efforts to win full civil rights for all LGBT people and those living with HIV/AIDS,” Tiven said.

Concern over benefits arises as employees say Lambda has enjoyed robust fundraising, but also incurs high expenses.

With President Trump’s anti-LGBT policies inspiring financial contribution to Lambda, sources briefed on the organization’s budget said it has experienced record fundraising in the past year, but nonetheless has had a deficit in income compared to expenditures in the same time period.

In response to a request for Lambda’s IRS 990 forms, Tiven deferred to the organization’s website. The IRS 990 forms are listed, but the most recent entry is for fiscal year 2016, which lists revenue at $19.7 million compared to $18 million in expenses. Tiven said the 990 for fiscal year 2017 wasn’t yet ready and non-profits have six months to make them public.

Tiven didn’t respond to a follow-up email to confirm whether revenue at Lambda was higher than recent years or whether expenditures for FY-17 were higher than revenue.

The past year at Lambda has also been marked by high employee turnover. An organization that had about 100 employees at the start of the year has seen the departure of more than 30 since that time, one source said. However, Lambda’s website lists more than 100 employees for the organization, which indicates a net gain in employment.

A number of key employees have left or are set to leave the organization, including some in senior positions. The former chief finance and administrative officer for Lambda, Lawson Shadburn, departed in September. Also set for departure is Jim Bennett, chief development officer for Lambda.

Jon Davidson, who’s been legal director for Lambda for 22 years, was set to depart the organization on Wednesday. Late last month, Susan Sommer, who was Lambda’s legal director of constitutional litigation, left her position to join the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

These departures from the legal team take place as Lambda has a petition pending before the U.S. Supreme Court asserting the prohibition on sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation nationwide. Lambda also continues to pursue other LGBT-related litigation, such as a lawsuit ensuring transgender students have access to the bathroom consistent with their gender identity and a challenge to Trump’s trans military ban.

Lambda has also experienced change in organizational structure, such as the elimination of a community education program, which engaged in direct education and advocacy at each regional office with members of the community.

The department was once supervised by a director of community education and advocacy who reported to the director of education and public affairs, but one source said both those senior positions were eliminated and the educators left one by one.

Tiven said “departures happen in every organization when a new CEO comes in” and she welcomes the contributions of employees no longer with the organization.

“We are excited about the powerhouse team that will carry on their legacy: Director of Strategy Sharon McGowan; Law & Policy Director Jenny Pizer; and Acting Legal Director Camilla Taylor, who led Lambda’s Marriage Project,” Tiven added. “Jon built a team of extraordinary lawyers who right now are fighting the trans military ban in Seattle, protecting marriage equality in Texas, and putting high school bathroom restrictions on trial in Jacksonville, Florida – to name just a few.”

One Lambda staffer attributed the discontent among employees at Lambda to the leadership of Tiven, who took over as CEO in July 2016.

“I do not know what the board and Rachel envisioned when she was hired to the position, but it seems to me that, for whatever reason, she is committed to changing Lambda Legal for the sake of change without explicitly chartering an organization into the future, and in so doing, she has demonstrated a lack of respect for the staff of the organization, and those that have dedicated decades of their lives to serving the LGBT community,” the staffer said.

The staffer added the unionization effort would be happening at Lambda “independent and apart of Rachel Tiven’s leadership.”

Representing management at Lambda in the labor proceedings is the international law firm Seyfarth Shaw. Although the law firm touts itself on consistently obtaining perfect scores in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, the organization has represented the Trump organization in labor and contract disputes. Seyfarth Shaw didn’t respond to a request to comment for this article.

A statement provided to the Blade and credited to Lambda Legal staffers asserts the unionization effort will facilitate employee work at the organization.

“Lambda Legal has been a leader in the movement for LGBTQ people and people living with HIV since 1973, improving the lives of the communities we serve through persistent, strategic and ambitious legal advocacy, policy work and community education of the highest quality,” the statement says. “As proud members of the Lambda Legal family, we see no better way to ensure the consistent quality of our work at the high level that today’s national landscape demands than to form a union.”

The statement insists the No. 1 priority for staffers remains “the improvement of the lives of LGBTQ people and everyone living with HIV.”

“We are the lawyers, fundraisers, communication and administrative and support staff that made the success of the past 40-plus years possible,” the statement says. “We want a collective voice and a seat at the table as the organization evolves and plans its response to an increasingly hostile federal administration and ever-changing legal landscape for LGBTQ people and everyone living with HIV.”

One source predicted the vote for unionization would be successful because “there’s significant support among staff already” and expressed hope for the changes it would initiate.

“I would like to see a conversation happening,” the source said. “It’s very clear that the voices of the people who are not in senior management are not being heard, and there’s barely an attempt to be transparent or to communicate, and I’m hopeful that a union will make the process of change — which may be needed — more transparent for folks and give us a seat at the table.”

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