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Washington, D.C. — More than 250 National Audubon Society workers and members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) announced today their plans to officially rename their union, “Audubon for All,” to drop the name of bird artist and enslaver John James Audubon. The union’s name change comes just days before the National Audubon Society Board is set to vote on its own name change later this week.
Workers note the Board’s process has happened behind closed doors without input from workers or the nonprofit’s urban chapters. In contrast, the union-represented Audubon workers, who in recent months have rebranded themselves as The Bird Union, will hold a democratic vote on a new permanent name for the union in coming months. Calling on the National Audubon Society to reckon with its racist legacy and follow their lead, workers sent a statement to Audubon’s Board of Directors underscoring why the name change is crucial to advancing their calls for a more equitable and inclusive culture.
“The organization is named for John James Audubon, a racist white man who enslaved at least nine Black people and contributed to Samuel George Morton’s ‘race science,’ which claimed white superiority over other races–ideas criticized at the time and now discredited. Starting today we disavow the name,” the letter reads. “We will not elevate and celebrate a person who would reject and oppress our union members today. We invite the National Audubon Society to join us. Changing our name is a small step to demonstrate our commitment to antiracism.”
These actions are part of a larger push by Audubon workers for better working conditions and treatment of staff across Audubon following years of discrimination and aggressive anti-worker behavior from the nonprofit. In an effort to address this, workers have brought a number of equitable proposals to the bargaining table as they continue to negotiate for a fair contract. Among the many proposals Audubon management continues to push back on is a grievance proposal that would ensure a staff person experiencing bias during a grievance process wouldn’t be overseen by the perceived perpetrator.
“We named our union Audubon for All after our employer, but John James Audubon the enslaver was not for all. He was racist and able to enjoy time in the field studying and painting bird life because of slave labor,” said Rodrick Leary, a data scientist for Audubon and member of The Bird Union. “That’s why The Bird Union is disavowing his name, his appalling legacy and the shadow it’s cast on our organization. That said, changing a name isn’t going to fix everything. In order for meaningful change to happen, Audubon management must come to the table ready to bargain a fair contract that reflects the organization’s values and that will improve the lives and livelihoods of its workers and communities of color.”
CWA filed three Unfair Labor Practice charges on behalf of Audubon workers last January with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against the National Audubon Society in response to Audubon leadership’s decision to unilaterally cut workers' healthcare benefits amid contract negotiations. Despite making claims of cultivating a supportive environment for workers, Audubon leadership still hasn’t taken steps to remedy the organization’s toxic workplace, bargain in good faith and reinstate healthcare benefits for their most vulnerable staff.
As contract negotiations continue to be dragged out by Audubon management, workers are demanding the organization and CEO Dr. Elizabeth Gray follow through on their commitment to ensuring a fair and equitable workplace by centering inclusivity in their contract and supporting and protecting underrepresented groups, including guaranteeing working conditions that uplift all workers, regardless of race or background.
“Elizabeth Gray has made the same promise over and over: Audubon is cultivating a workplace where all staff feel accepted and valued,” said Shyamlee Patel, a finance associate at Audubon and member of the Bird Union. “But actions speak louder than words. Audubon has refused to meet us at the table in good faith; management increased the cost of our health insurance without the intention to negotiate; sat on contract proposals for months without issuing any response; withheld financial information from the union. These actions speak volumes about how unconcerned they are with ensuring Audubon’s workers feel empowered to protect the birds and the planet in a fair and equitable workplace. Management’s pledges of support are hollow because they are not backed up by real efforts to allow all of their workers to live with dignity and feel safe and respected on the job.
In recent years, multiple National Audubon Society chapters across the country have changed their names to rebuke the nonprofit’s troubling namesake and promote diversity and inclusion across the organization. This includes urban chapters in Seattle, Wash.; Portland, Ore.; Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Ill.; and Madison, Wis.