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Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC)

Long Hours, Sleepless Nights: Nonprofit Workers Unionize in the Appalachian Coalfields

By Caitlin Myers - Strike Wave, August 13, 2021

Nonprofit workers can be a self-abnegating bunch. As a sector tasked with solving the world’s ills in ways the state can’t or won’t, from filling gaps in social services and campaigning for environmental justice to running charities and educational programs to ostensibly end poverty, nonprofits can induce in their workers a sense of moral obligation not to complain. After all, almost everyone else is worse off, right? 

That sense of obligation kept the staff of one West Virginia environmental nonprofit quiet for many years. As paid community organizers for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), their principal duty was to organizational members, with whom they fought against mountaintop removal coal mining, natural gas development, and petrochemical buildout through lobbying, direct action, and sustained campaign work. In coalitions such as the Alliance for Appalachia and Reimagine Appalachia, OVEC organizers have contributed to policy proposals and lobbying efforts designed to bring the region an explicitly pro-labor, ecologically sustainable economic transition away from coal.

When he was hired, Dustin White was thrilled to be able to dedicate his life to the fight against strip mining, and like many organizers, built a deep and complex network of relationships in communities like the one that raised him. But, he says, paid organizing is time-consuming, travel-intensive, and deeply emotional work, and he found it draining to a degree he felt management simply didn’t understand. 

“Self care ended up being work, too,” said White. As a result of long-term issues with burnout, he and others on staff privately reached out to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the winter, and hoped to go public on Earth Day. 

“I have had long work hours, sleepless nights, countless hours on the road, hundreds of blisters on my feet, and more during my time with OVEC,” White wrote in a letter to the staff and board. “Time after time I have been told that we trust and support each other and our board of directors would always have our back.” 

A staff member spilled the beans early, though. According to White, management was incensed, and after months of vitriol he and fellow staffer Brendan Muckian Bates were fired. White was fired allegedly for violating the organizational handbook’s civility rules, and Bates for organizing as a manager. Both were prominent in the union effort, though, and believe management’s goal was to discourage others involved in the unionization effort. White had experienced a series of health problems; Bates was a new father. But the lesson from this historically pro-labor organization was this: unions are great for coal miners, but you don’t need one. You have it easy. 

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition Workers Vote on Union

By Arbaz M Khan - Industrial Worker, July 14, 2021

Update: According to OVEC, a majority of workers voted to certify the union!

Recently, the fight for a union at Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition shifted gears from collective direct action to the ballot box, as workers voted on whether or not to certify their union, which is organized with the Industrial Workers of the World. Following almost five months of demanding that management voluntarily recognize their union — which included a one-day strike on Earth Day, April 22 — workers at the nonprofit organization finished casting votes in a union election managed by the National Labor Relations Board on July 9. 

Workers at OVEC publicly announced their intention to unionize in March. Besides voluntary recognition from management, their 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 are discussed. Voluntary recognition would entail management agreeing to negotiate with the union, but OVEC’s board of directors have thus far withheld it — instead suspending, then terminating, OVEC’s former director of organizing, Brendan Muckian-Bates, allegedly for his involvement in the union. 

“I was fired less than two weeks after my third child was born — and management knew,” says Muckian-Bates. “I don’t think they cared about how their actions affected me or my family. I sent management a picture of my son and demanded some humanity from them — anything at all — but they refused and haven’t been in contact with me since.”

OVEC workers’ Earth Day strike was spurred in part by Muckian-Bates’ dismissal. Despite the reprisal from management, he remains a staunch supporter of the union and looks forward to the election results.

“My commitment to the OVEC Union has not waned,” he says. “I’ve been inspired by the work that my fellow workers do everyday and how they’ve stuck it out despite the retaliations. They’re truly some of the best organizers I’ve met, and it’s a level of commitment you don’t often come across.”

“Management could have recognized the union in March, kept on their current staff levels, and we could have already begun negotiating some of the necessary changes we think are needed to keep OVEC going,” he continues. “But we know that we’ll win the election, and we want management to be ready to negotiate with us fairly and in good faith once that’s done.”

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition Workers Stand Firm Despite Management Offensive

By staff - IWW, June 14, 2021

HUNTINGTON, WV — While public concern for urgent action on the environment remains high, one of West Virginia’s most prestigious environmental organizations, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), is poised to miss crucial organizing opportunities this summer as it enters into the fourth month of a brutal dispute over their employee’s right to unionize.

In March 2021, workers of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition organized with majority support as the OVEC Union (OVECU) under the IWW, requesting voluntary recognition.

Despite majority support among the members of OVEC’s Board of Directors for a positive and good faith engagement with staff, the organization has chosen to fight tooth and nail. With Mike Sullivan at the helm of the Board, and Tonya Adkins & Vivian Stockman in Co-Direction, OVEC has chosen to effectively whittle down its capacity to organize as it suspends, fires, and threatens its staff into submission.

Upon learning of the union drive, OVEC management immediately launched an internal hunt for instigators, placing their Director of Organizing, Brendan Muckian-Bates, on suspension. While the organization claimed that Brendan was a supervisor and consequently not entitled to participate in union activity, OVEC was unable to convince the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) which ruled that Brendan was to be included in the bargaining unit at a formal hearing earlier this month.

Upon learning of their loss at the NLRB, OVEC management opted to double down by terminating their Director of Organizing as well as their Project Coordinator, Dustin White. While Brendan’s suspension and termination is bad enough — arriving as it does mere days following the birth of a new child — Dustin’s termination is especially egregious given his unimpeachable credentials in the environmental movement.

Heralding from 11 generations of working class ancestry in the so called “coal fields” of Southern West Virginia, and family ties to the UMWA including a great grandfather who fought at Blair Mountain, Dustin became involved in the environmental movement as a volunteer with OVEC around 2007 before joining the staff in 2012. Dustin has lobbied on both the state and federal levels on numerous issues leading to important legal changes. Recognized with an award by OVEC, Dustin has testified before Congress, conducted ground tours with Congressional representatives, held numerous meetings with state and federal agencies, and worked with the United Nations and Human Rights Watch for reports on the conditions in Appalachia. Having been featured in media locally, nationally, and internationally, including a recent feature in a National Geographic series, just prior to his termination Dustin conducted two tours with German Public Broadcasting and independent filmmakers.

In a move that demonstrates tremendous integrity and honor, non profit organizations working on environmental issues, such as the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action have moved to suspend their partnerships with OVEC, sending a comradely but firm signal that the organization will be welcome back into the fold when it returns to good standing with their employees.

An NLRB election is presently taking place and votes will be counted on July 9.

The IWW stands ready to reduce tensions, and negotiate a lasting agreement with OVEC that will enable them to return to their important work.

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition’s Earth Day Strike

By Cal Colgan - Industrial Worker, May 4, 2021

The nonprofit industry in the U.S. has seen an upswing of organizing drives in the past few years, with a growing number of the industry’s workers viewing unionization as the best way to ensure that the NGOs for which they work live up to their progressive ideals. Few of the mainstream labor unions that are leading this organizing wave, however, have bothered to reach out to nonprofit workers in West Virginia. The staff at a small environmental justice nonprofit are hoping that their example of organizing with the Industrial Workers of the World can inspire other nonprofit workers in the Mountain State. 

Workers at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) staged a one-day strike this past Earth Day, April 22, to demand that their Board of Directors voluntarily recognize their union, known as the OVEC Union. The staff publicly announced their decision to organize with the IWW on March 4. The workers said the backlash they have received from some of OVEC’s board members is what sparked them to strike. 

Dustin White, OVEC’s Project Coordinator, said that the workers’ decision to unionize started as a series of conversations between the workers about the organization’s future.

“We knew that in a few years we may be expanding our staff and we would have a new executive director and, honoring the values we have as an organization, a union seemed like the logical next step in the progress of our organization and work,” he said.

White also noted that West Virginians’ experience with federal and state governments’ attacks on progressive values inspired the OVEC workers to reflect on issues around equity and diversity within their organization.  “A union was the logical next step into creating a stronger OVEC to create an even more equitable workplace than we already had, not just for us, but for any and all new staff.”

The OVEC Union workers said they chose to organize with the West Virginia IWW General Membership Branch both because of the union’s willingness to help them immediately and because of the IWW’s history of organizing some of the most marginalized and disadvantaged workers in the working class.

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Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition Staff Joins the IWW

By Staff - Industrial Workers of the World, March 16, 2021

HUNTINGTON, West Virginia — The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is excited to announce that workers of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) have recently organized with majority support as the OVEC Union (OVECU) under the IWW. As of March 4, OVECU has submitted a request for voluntary recognition to the OVEC Board of Directors. OVECU is excited to begin the process of negotiating their contract. Their key demands include a standardized pay scale, an equitable discipline policy, and the right to union representation at any meeting wherein matters affecting staff pay, hours, benefits, advancement, or layoffs may be discussed or voted on.

The workers of OVEC decided to unionize to honor their organizational values of empowerment and justice. OVEC’s mission to organize for environmental justice is informed by the belief that Appalachians — and all workers, everywhere — benefit from the right to union representation in their place of employment regardless of current working conditions. OVECU believes it is particularly important for employees to have union support during times of transition with administration, board, and staff, and is eager to move forward collaboratively with members of the board and administration as the 34-year-old organization grows and changes.

“Having a union is a logical next step in supporting our organization as our organization continues to support our communities. Unionizing only strengthens our commitment to the vital work we do at the crossroads of environmental, social, and labor justice,” said OVEC Project Coordinator Dustin White.

OVECU is asking for you to endorse their unionization efforts by calling 304-522-0246 and leaving a message of congratulations and support, or dropping a note at info@ohvec.org.

The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition Union is committed to protecting and preserving the quality of work conditions for employees of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

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