A Stronger Organization, A Stronger Movement

Heather Taylor-Miesle, June 25, 2020

Last summer, a group of staff came into my office to announce the formation of the OEC Workers United union and ask for voluntary recognition. I must admit, it caught me off guard. The staff is largely working on a mission for which they have a lot of passion, growing their reputations and abilities, and doing meaningful, productive work. The OEC had great benefits, offered what we thought was competitive pay, and a collegial atmosphere. What more could a union provide to our workplace? 

However, as the daughter of union parents whose family benefited greatly from their representation, I knew that it was about more than just benefits and hours—it was about having a role in building the future of the organization we all care deeply about. OEC’s leadership team quickly recommended to the board that we voluntarily recognize the union, they unanimously supported the recommendation, and we went to work bargaining for our first contract – and honestly, I’m glad we did.

The collective bargaining process is not for the faint-hearted. Every benefit, every process, every dollar is considered—which can feel like someone “Monday morning quarterbacking” every decision a leader makes on behalf of an organization. Once all the staff at the bargaining table started brainstorming about how we could make a great organization even better, I realized how a collective bargaining agreement could ensure the long-term sustainability of nonprofit workers, particularly those fighting hard each day for a more equitable world. These jobs are hard, and too often the movement loses the most effective and experienced advocates and organizers. A sustainable nonprofit advocacy workforce needs balance of work and life, flexibility and grace from managers to take a breather when needed, and supportive career pathways that are designed to keep the best and brightest taking on more leadership over time. The collective bargaining process gave managers a greater understanding of these challenges, and empowered our staff to have a larger voice at the decision-making table. 

A sustainable nonprofit advocacy workforce needs to be just as considerate as it is demanding to be effective. And that was our goal for the collective bargaining process and contract. 

Our contract was ratified on June 13, 2020 and here are some of the highlights (in no particular order): 

Our employees will have an even bigger voice. 

Our new contract brings employees closer to the decision-making process. Unionized staff members will have designated voice(s) on our (1) executive staff team, our (2) staff budget committee, our (3) staff committee leading justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion priorities, (4) our staff hiring committees, and with (5) helping manage board committee action.  The contract also lays out a process by which any staff member can raise a concern about workload to an internal team tasked with evaluating the challenge and coming up with solutions. 

We will keep investing in our employees.

Nonprofit advocacy organizations are only as successful as their gifted employees—and ours are among the best. One of the OEC values is to hire hard working, top talent who are passionate about the environment, committed to continuous learning, and willing to invest in our teammates through deliberate mentoring, training, and evaluation. We will keep doing that by offering significant support for individual trainings of the employee’s choosing, and sending staff to national gatherings where they can learn from others doing the work in other regions. We will also continue to offer full healthcare and additional benefits, like retirement account matching and extending our existing paid parental leave, to our employees. Finally, no staff member will make less than the MIT livable wage

Our commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion is further ingrained at OEC and in our movement.

The environmental movement has a long history of shutting marginalized people out and has unfortunately supported structures that exacerbate inequality—especially around racism. The OEC is part of that history and for that, we are deeply sorry. The OEC—and our friends in the conservation voter movement—have started to take steps to reconcile our past transgressions and improve on the current system. We have a long way to go, but I am proud that this contract cements our commitment to work towards building a more diverse staff through our hiring and retention practices and by permanently creating an internal committee staffed equally by management and union membership to ensure we don’t stray from our values.

“Overhead” is PEOPLE vital to the mission.

For too long, “overhead” has been a dirty word amongst those funding the nonprofit sector. Overhead is generally defined as a combination of management, general, and fundraising expenses. These types of expenses are often deemed to be unrelated to the mission. Nothing could be further from the truth. We believe in our mission, so we invite others to join us by giving to those goals, which help us fund our people. Our offices, our accounting, our support staff who greet those who enter our space—they are all vital to our mission. Our contract solidifies that we will prioritize requesting approximately 18% “overhead” on all funding requests because every member of our team is vital to our mission. 

Our team will continue to have a life outside of this work.

These jobs can be all consuming and unpredictable. That can leave little room for a dentist appointment, much less taking care of a family or investing in an outside passion. The OEC is proud to offer opportunities for our employees to work from home and temporarily flex their schedule to make sure they can take care of priorities outside of our mission. We are also proud to offer a designated space for nursing mothers in our office. 

Our employees will get true breaks to recharge. 

Our contract continues our generous sick and vacation time and adds in time to go vote and work the polls.  We have also added sabbaticals so that after three years of full-time, continuous work, and every three years thereafter, staff at every level of the organization will be able to take an extended break. Study after study shows sabbatical leave promotes well-being, decreases stress, and provides opportunities to acquire new knowledge and skills. Efficiency, overall job satisfaction, and greater retention also comes with more frequent breaks and we are proud to set the bar. 

Our employees will have true transparency in salaries and beyond.

Transparency is not just making information available—it is also a commitment to information that is understandable, relevant, and accurate. Moving forward, staff will participate in decision-making on multiple fronts, equipped with understandable information and processes to address knowledge gaps. As it relates to salaries, the contract guarantees an annual cost of living adjustment and an annual market review of salaries performed by a budget process that will include both unit and non-unit staff. While we may not always be able to meet the market depending on the budget, each staffer will know their market range and be able to talk directly to management about how we can remain competitive for top talent. This model extends to non-salary expenses, as well. As a guiding principle moving forward, we will support financial literacy training for every staffer so they can understand the implications of the numbers in our budget and provide guidance about decision-making. 


These are just a few of the highlights of our new contract with the OEC Workers United union. In keeping with our promise and value to be transparent, you can find the contract on our website here. I am grateful to the entire staff and board for the tremendous work to secure healthy air, land, and water for all who call Ohio home, and hopeful for our future as we build a more sustainable movement—together.