One of the Ohio Valley’s most prominent environmental groups has voted to dissolve amid contract negotiations with its union, raising questions about the organization’s treatment of its workers and the effects its void will leave on environmental activism throughout the region.
The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition board of directors voted Tuesday evening to dissolve the organization amid stalled negotiations with the union formed earlier this year on its first collective bargaining agreement.
“All members of the OVEC Union are already working tirelessly to find avenues to continue the work and rebuild in the void left by this institution and the selfish people who decided to kill it instead of allowing it to change,” the union said in a statement Wednesday.
The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, a Huntington-based nonprofit formed in 1987, said in a statement published on its website Thursday afternoon that it could not disclose the reasons for its dissolution “due to confidential personnel matters and ongoing legal issues.”
The dissolution is effective immediately, coalition co-director Vivian Stockman said in an email Thursday.
The board voted 10-1 to dissolve the organization, the coalition said.
“[W]e are no longer able to diligently carry out our mission,” the coalition said in its statement.
Workers voted in a July election managed by the National Labor Relations Board to certify the union, which affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World international labor union. The workers first announced their intention to unionize in March, when they submitted a request for voluntary recognition from management.
Environmental groups say they’re losing a vital partner in the coalition.
“OVEC has been the trailblazing group for environmental justice activism,” West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said in an email. “So many communities benefited from their dedication to exposing truths, negotiating solutions, and keeping people most impacted by environmental harms at the center of their work.”
The coalition’s assets will be distributed to nonprofits with similar missions, the organization said.
Co-directors Vivian Stockman and Tonya Adkins announced retirements earlier this month that were to be effective at the end of the year — moves that the organization said in its statement Thursday were early retirements to avoid serving in the group’s work climate.
“We believe the pandemic — which prevented us from meeting in person — contributed to the unraveling of trust within OVEC,” the organization said in its statement.
Union members said in phone interviews Wednesday that board members refused to negotiate in good faith, canceled a negotiation session scheduled for late last month hours beforehand and bullied union workers and other board members sympathetic to the unionization effort while management greatly limited communications with them and devalued their work.
Stockman declined comment on personnel issues but said that as staff numbers grew during the pandemic, her work to “strengthen and build co-workers’ relationships as a team” and uphold the coalition’s vision were “significantly challenged.”
“[T]o attempt to succinctly summarize what has transpired would not do justice to the difficulties we’ve all been going through,” Stockman said.
“Yeah, it’s devastating,” coalition community organizer Alex Cole said in a phone interview Wednesday. “If this is truly who OVEC is, they don’t deserve to exist anymore.”
Then-coalition project coordinator Dustin White said in a phone interview Wednesday that staff began having conversations about unionizing last fall and were outed by another employee to management during a staff call in March.
White said that a two-hour Zoom teleconference call with board member Mike Forman followed in which he berated workers for considering unionization. White and other union members say board members and management began ignoring them.
“It became quite obvious after the meeting in March they were dead set against a union,” White said.
An April message with Forman’s signature addressed to other board members called the unionization effort a “COUP” in capital letters, that the union members’ choice to organize with the Industrial Workers of the World was in part about “Socialist Anarchism” and that the workers were trying to transform the coalition into a “radical organization based on their fringe beliefs.”
The union published a message in May attributed to former board member Mikael Huffman, who is Black, saying she resigned from the board two months earlier after experiencing “White Supremacy Culture” as she was spoken over and condescended by unnamed board members.
In a May Facebook post published after she resigned from the board earlier that month, former board Vice Chairperson Bayleigh Epperly said that she tried to bridge the gap between board members and staff for six weeks. But other unnamed board members called her and others “unqualified and inexperienced” to silence them and refused to hear from staff, Epperly said.
The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition released a statement in July congratulating the employees on their unionization.
But the board suspended then-director of organizing Brendan Muckian-Bates with pay in March before firing him in May, saying he was unlawfully organizing a union as a supervisor. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in June that coalition failed to show that worker was a supervisor under federal labor law.
The board also fired White in May, alleging that he violated organization civility rules during an email exchange. White says he was just “call[ing] out [board members] on their behavior.”
Union members say that after months of trying to secure a date, they agreed with the board to a first collective bargaining negotiation date of Oct. 27. But union members say coalition negotiators insisted on meeting in person when the union preferred to meet virtually since they are based throughout the state and White was diagnosed in June with diabetes, leaving him immunocompromised.
The union says coalition negotiators canceled the session hours before it was scheduled to start on Oct. 27, rejecting a compromise it offered in which some union members would meet their counterparts in person and others would join remotely.
“They really have tried to drag every single thing out as much as humanly possible this whole time,” Cole said.
The union said the coalition would owe at least $50,000 in back pay for White and Muckian-Bates unless it agreed to a settlement proposal drafted by the National Labor Relations Board in September.
The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition removed itself from environmental lawsuits in recent months. It cited “internal challenges” that prompted its board of directors to adopt a resolution directing its counsel to withdraw from a suit against Gov. Jim Justice’s Bluestone Coal Corp. that led to a federal judge finding the company liable for water pollution near a McDowell County surface mine.
The coalition acknowledged volatility in its ranks since the start of 2020, when it had five employees. The organization said it added one new employee just days before it went into pandemic shutdown and added four more last year.
But 2021 saw the coalition firing Muckian-Bates and White, losing four more employees through resignations and hiring only one replacement. Stockman and Adkins decided to announce early retirements rather than continue serving in the current work climate, the coalition said Thursday.
“The spread of misinformation through social media also played a role in OVEC’s current situation,” the coalition said.
Cole, 32, said he and White were expected to organize communities and stay on top of environmental issues along 300 miles of the Ohio River corridor without support from management, which he said hamstrung digital initiatives because it didn’t want to change the organization’s website even after receiving a grant to do so.
“A reoccurring theme at OVEC is that change is not allowed,” Cole said. “You’re not allowed to change anything.”
Forman, who served as union president for three National Air Traffic Controllers Association locals, denied being anti-union in an email, adding that the OVEC union and accused Industrial Workers of the World had put out “disinformation and misinformation.” He declined further comment.
Board Chair Mike Sullivan and other board members could not be reached for comment.
Former coalition project coordinator Robin Blakeman left the staff in May because she could not tolerate what she called “rising conflict” any longer.
“I worked for OVEC for 12 years and it was the best job, with the most collaborative and equitable work environment I have yet experienced in my life,” Blakeman said in an email.
Blakeman questioned why staff members decided to form a union rather than use what she called “very open” staff grievance discussion processes.
The union’s demands included a standardized pay scale, equitable discipline policy and the right to union representation at any meeting where matters affecting pay, hours, benefits, advancement or layoffs were discussed.
Eric Engle, chairman of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action, said his all-volunteer environmental group would do what it could to fill a “disheartening void” left by the coalition’s dissolution, expressing outrage at the decision to dissolve the organization rather than work cooperatively with the union.
“OVEC has been one of the most effective organizations at providing detailed analyses of issues like the proposed Appalachian Storage Hub and accompanying buildout of oil and gas infrastructure to educate the public in accessible ways,” Engle said in an email.
Muckian-Bates, 31, of Moundsville said he hopes the union’s fight inspires workers at small nonprofits to consider unionizing.
“The fact that OVEC can unilaterally fire individuals for legally protected activities and just dissolve so they don’t have to negotiate a contract with us shows that it doesn’t matter how progressive they claim to be at the end of the day if they have power over our lives and our work, then it’s no different than if you’re working at Toyota or working in the coal mine,” Muckian-Bates said. “It’s the same power dynamic.”