At a very young age, I became aware of the existence of labor unions. I didn’t know exactly what they were, but I knew very simply that they were looking out for farm workers. As a Xicanx, my mother raised me with an understanding of the California grape boycott called by Larry Itliong (a Filipinx farm worker) and supported by the United Farm Workers, co-founded by Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez.
When I founded Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.) in 2007, I knew unions were inherently going to be a part of F.E.P.’s work when we would discuss union workers in Latin America being targeted by U.S. corporations as well as other farm worker issues. In addition to that, I was already making sure that we always used union printers.
Over the past few years, we have been working closely with North Bay Jobs with Justice (NBJwJ) on issues related to the fight for living wages and farm workers. Late last year, the organization, with only three employees, unionized.
I had never heard of non-profit unionizing, so I was very excited to learn more. (In Part II of this blog, I will share details on two organizations that I spoke to that unionize NGOs.)
As someone who has been actively organizing in the animal rights and vegan movement since 1987 and got my first paid position in 1995, what I experienced is not much different than what others have also experienced.
I worked for a couple of animal rights organizations that were not known to be great places to work, but I took these jobs as I wanted to be able to commit 100% of my time fighting for non-human animals.
And what had been my passion in life, the reason I went to college, ended up being my weakness as I allowed myself to be verbally abused, degraded, and have every ounce of my self-esteem sucked out of me. With my first job in the animal rights movement, I began to have health problems that were directly correlated to my work and the treatment I was facing from the head of the organization. My doctor encouraged me to quit my job as it was obvious when the spikes in my heart monitor were coming up. To me, the doctor did not understand that I was doing this “for the animals.”
I quit the other vegan animal rights organization I worked for after four months; I saw the same micromanaging and self-esteem whittling tactics being used.
It was not just me that the management was treating this way—it was most of the employees, but mostly the women who were treated as if they were absolutely worthless and were never smart enough, and these experiences were consistent with what activists were enduring across the country.
There is a clear pattern of abuse, bullying, sexual harassment, and racist treatment by organizations and an ever-prevalent problem of low wages (again, one reason why I feel the movement is so white), and if you want a salary increase, you are made to feel as if you are taking money away from the animals. This is in addition to organizations not paying for health insurance and making employees feel they should also contribute “volunteer” time, hiring workers as contractors instead of employees so they do not have to pay benefits, and wage differences between management and staff and between the white and Black and Brown employees.
Employees are constantly made to feel as if they should put up with any bad behavior “for the animals.” I might have agreed with that at one time, but now I know better. My cat sure as hell would not have been okay with how I was treated. And I imagine that the animals we fought for would be horrified by the abuse as well.
Above all, employees are made to feel that they should keep secrets about bad behavior within the organization and accept abuse—including sexual harassment—as anything else could harm the movement and thus harm the animals.
It is very easy to look in from the outside and not understand. But this is real, and it is painful. It is hard to walk away—not only because of the privilege of working for your passion, but you also feel as if you are deserting the animals and your co-workers.
I would like to think that what I have written above has shown you why it is important for employees to be protected and not to have to fight for their rights and why unions can help.
I think it is absolutely hypocritical for a movement that advocates for non-human animals—animals who are not able to fully advocate for themselves in society—to not permit employees to advocate for themselves. For workers not to have a voice in their work renders them, ironically, voiceless. Without the employees of organizations, we would not have achieved what we have thus far for the animals. And, in fact, I would go as far as to say that if we treated our employees better, got rid of abusive employees, and paid living wages, we might be further along as the burnout factor is real, and by not doing so, turnover in the movement is high.
This new generation of activists is courageous and is guiding the vegan animal rights movement to a much better place.
When I learned about NBJwJ unionizing, I spoke to our new executive director and board, and we made it a point to let the staff know we would support them if they decide to unionize.
Why? What is the downside? I don’t see why an organization would not want to do the right thing for their employees. Many times workers are worried about their jobs if they speak up.
Right now, there is an animal rights organization (Animal Legal Defense Fund) working to unionize, and I could not be more excited!
One of the most inspiring parts of what is happening today is employees of animal rights organizations want to have a voice in the organization, what the organization stands for, and what the organization says publicly. That is huge!
They also do not want to feel as if they are competing with other employees or even other organizations that share the same goal. When I first got involved in the animal rights movement in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, I did not feel that way. But over time, it has become an all-consuming practice where you even have organizations belittling the work of other animal rights groups. A prime example: some vegan organizations promote their work for farmed animals as more important than work done for any other animals based on the number of animals being killed and exploited. And don’t get me started on utilitarians.
Like me, many people work at various animal rights organizations during their careers. They leave one group thinking that they will be treated better at another yet sometimes find themselves in a similar situation.
I would never want to make it seem as if being an executive director or the founder of an organization is easy. Many of us founded organizations because of our passion and not necessarily because we are skilled at many tasks that the job requires. Personally, my goal has never been to be “in charge” but to do the work I am passionate about. As soon as F.E.P. could afford to hire an executive director, we did. And we found someone who is skilled and looks out for both the employees and the organization, and I am very thankful for that.
What I love is that this new generation gets that and so much more! This isn’t a threat to those who see themselves as the leader but more of an evolution of what NGOs should look like where workers have a say.
This generation of young people is what spurred on the animal rights movement to deal with some of its #metoo problems (though there is still a lot of work to do), and it is this same generation that is asking for a voice in the organizations they work for.
Those who have been at this a long time need to listen and welcome this new energy. It is incredible to have employees be so committed to the organization and want to have a voice.
Please give a voice to your employees.
*I feel the very similar arguments for workers for vegan businesses. Many are working at places that align with some of their values as most other jobs would require an ethical compromise. Vegans who work at vegan establishments are doing so with pride and should be treated well and not taken advantage of because the employer knows there are few vegan jobs available.