EXCLUSIVE: In Ironic Twist, ACLU Workers Accuse Management of Violating Their Rights

ByGabriel Grand

This article was co-written and co-reported by Gabe Grand and Uchechi Kalu.

In the shadow of the American Civil Liberties Union's national headquarters in downtown Manhattan, union members gathered for a fight on Wednesday afternoon. Demonstrators brandished signs that read, "ACLU: Be Fair!" and "Practice What You Preach!"

The ACLU, long known as a champion of fair labor standards, stands accused of violating its own workers’ rights. Last March, the ACLU, a nonprofit, began negotiating a new contract for its unionized staff, one void of major benefits employees had enjoyed since the 1970s. The requested concessions from union staff include smaller wage increases, health care costs, and other corporate money-saving measures. But one of the most contentious points, according to union members, is the ACLU’s demand that workers give up the basic "just cause" provision in their contract, which protects workers against wrongful termination by their employers. 

Such a provision is one the ACLU has fought for around the nation and essentially protects workers from being fired without just cause. That it would strike it from some employee's contracts, according to union members, could set a troubling precedent. The ACLU is generally considered the nation's preeminent defender of the Bill of Rights. 

Nearly 35 demonstrators from UAW Local 2110 AFL-CIO, the collective bargaining unit that represents the ACLU’s legal assistants, administrative assistants, bookkeepers, mail clerks, and other support staff, staged the walkout on Wednesday.

"Management thinks that we have way too much money and way too many rights, and it’s time for us to give back like the rest of the non-union corporate world," declared a Local 2110 newsletter from May.

"We came in with pretty modest proposals," said Eden Schulz, who has worked as a union organizer for 13 years and now serves as Local 2110's Secretary-Treasurer, "but management came in with a mountain of givebacks."

On Thursday, Executive Director Anthony Romero sent ACLU national staff an internal memo explaining the organization’s economic rationale behind its union negotiations. PolicyMic received a copy of the memo, from an ACLU spokesperson, which did not mention the just cause contract provision.

Ironically, in recent years, the ACLU has been an outspoken critic of wrongful discharge, stating, "The magnitude of the problem is enormous." In fact, in 1998 and again in 2002, the ACLU published legislative briefs that advocated for nationwide "just cause" provisions as the "answer to injustice" in the workplace — the same provisions it is now seeking to jettison from some of its worker’s contracts.

"Management is demanding that ... the union would agree to a long list of employee acts and behaviors [that] would constitute just cause for termination, including 'disloyalty,'" said Schultz.

But the disagreements do go deeper. The ACLU wants its unionized workers, who average salaries of $41,000 per year, according to staff, to start paying for their own health care benefits.

Romero also pointed to a significant decrease in donations to the ACLU following the 2009 market collapse — including the loss of an unnamed $22 million annual donor — that, he said, had made employee contributions to health insurance plans a necessity. He noted that the nonprofit is still running a  $8.346 million deficit this year, even after it drew $22.689 million from reserve funds.

"We pay our employees higher than other leading nonprofits," Romero stated in the email to staff. He went on to cite a 2011 Non-Profit Times compensation report that revealed ACLU salaries to be higher than average across the board. "We use market data of other nonprofits to determine salaries," he remarked, adding that his own salary was comparable to that of other nonprofit CEOs.

Meanwhile, however, the top five executives at the company received a combined $100,000 salary hike in 2012, an amount that would have covered an 8% boost for all unionized staff, according to a Local 2110 press release.

Image courtesy of UAW Local 2110.

Despite the austerity measures for its low-level employees, the ACLU’s most recent tax returns report close to $34 million in gross revenue, with $32 million in total expenses. The same documents reveal that Executive Director Anthony Romero earned a base salary of $382,000 and collected an additional $24,000 in other compensation and benefits.

Romero isn’t the only top-level ACLU executive who makes the same wages as President Obama. In fact, the ACLU's top 10 earners all received over $300,000 each between 2011-2012. That was before the same executives gave themselves raises in 2012, some of which represented a pay increase of as much as 12%.

"The hypocrisy of the ACLU is shocking," said ACLU Legal Assistant Emily Carter. "They are not protecting their lowest-paid employees, who are just as dedicated to the ACLU's causes as the most senior employees and management."

Kate Larkin, who has been employed by the ACLU as a legal assistant for close to three years, accused the nonprofit’s management of promoting socioeconomic stratification within the organization. "It’s a class-based system that they’re buying into in their own office," she said. 

Local 2110 president, Rosenstein, believes news of the ACLU’s dealings with organized labor will undermine its credibility with donors. "It tarnishes the reputation of the ACLU," she stated. Addressing protesters at the end of the demonstration, she encouraged Local 2110 to be "relentless" and "keep on keeping on."

According to demonstrators, all of the unionized workers in the collective bargaining unit came out in protest. (The ACLU puts this number at 28.) But they are not the only ACLU employees dissatisfied with the givebacks. Last May, non-unionized workers in the unit sent ACLU management a memo explaining their opposition. The group of senior staff attorneys, strategists and policy analysts urged "the ACLU not to penalize those at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy, and to agree to a contract that does not cut benefits or diminish workplace rights."

Even union workers outside Local 2110 came and demonstrated in front of the ACLU building on Wednesday. One woman, Carmen Santiago, came wearing a red dashiki. She works for NYCLU, another 2110. The NYCLU’s contract is not under scrutiny right now, but Santiago came out anyway for her colleagues, and said, "everything is all in solidarity."

Larkin thinks that even Santiago’s contract will be on the chopping block soon. In her opinion, no unionized staff at the ACLU is safe from givebacks.

The union members and ACLU staff have another bargaining session on July 31st.

Gabe Grand (@gabethegrand) and Uchechi Kalu (@chechkalu) are staff writers for PolicyMic.