This should have happened a long time ago…

8 minute read

November 25, 2019, 8:35 AM

Recently, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, and there was someone that I didn’t know in my “People You May Know” list who had an emblem for an organization called “Food & Water Workers Union” on their profile photo.  This piqued my interest, because as you may know, I used to work for an organization called Food & Water Watch.  The similarity in the name made me wonder if it was related, so I looked it up.  I figured that it was some branding that my former employer was using for a campaign of some sort on the environmental issue du jour.  Imagine my surprise to find out that it was for a recently-formed Food & Water Watch employee union, part of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union.  At the time of this writing, they had voted to unionize, and, according to a tweet, were negotiating over which positions will be represented by the union.  I have to say that I’m proud of them for organizing, but I’m also surprised that it took them this long to get to this point.  Their becoming a union shop really should have happened a long time ago.

I don’t know what prompted people to organize, but I can only imagine that people finally got fed up with the culture that I left for greener pastures back in 2013.  Back then, there was rampant favoritism, little to no room for advancement, no respect for different people’s roles in the organization, and no respect for procedure.  There was also the backdoor way that my former boss, Lane Brooks, liked to use to get rid of people, including the finance manager and myself, by creating a new position specifically written to be outside of the targeted employee’s qualifications, and then advertising it out, effectively demoting the employee.  If that by itself didn’t make them leave, he would then put the screws on the employee until they quit.  And if that didn’t work, he made more overt moves to fire them.  After the targeted employee left, the new position was abandoned, having served its purpose in ousting the targeted employee.

In addition, I remember feeling quite resentful of what they did to our health insurance benefits at the end of 2012, downgrading us from a Blue Cross PPO to a plan called “HealthyBlue”, which was an HMO plan that also required taking some online surveys about our health and speaking with an insurance company representative over the phone about our health in order to receive the full benefits of the plan.  “Yes, take away my PPO that is very easy to use for something that requires a lot of unnecessary doctor visits due to referral requirements, and requires that I speak with a stranger over the phone about my lifestyle in order to get all of my benefits,” said no employee ever.  I don’t care that you saved the organization $100,000 by downgrading our health insurance.  I thought that we were worth the extra 100 grand to have excellent health insurance, but apparently they didn’t.  Touting a “generous” benefit package in job advertisements didn’t mean much when they could cut them back at any time.  However, considering that we had no employee contribution to the premium, I, along with others, I’m sure, felt at the time that we would be out of place to complain about it, because we had no direct financial stake in our insurance benefits.  It reminds me of the expression, “United, we bargain.  Divided, we beg.”

About a year and a half after I left the organization, I wrote this about the organization on Glassdoor:

The organization has a major problem with favoritism.  Basically, if you work in the organizing or development departments, you are on top of the heap, and everything that you say is law.  If you are outside of those areas, it is made quite clear by the actions of others that your roles are inferior to those of organizing and development.  Those two areas also got the bulk of the training and professional development, while others were given little, if any.  I found that this created a culture of resentment amongst the “non-favored” employees, which poisoned the well in terms of interdepartmental relationships.  Organizing and development staff would continually deny this, while happily reaping the benefits of their favored status.

Likewise, unless one is in the organizing or development departments, the likelihood of professional advancement is slim to none.  While development and organizing staff are routinely promoted to ever increasing titles and roles, other staff rarely ever gets a raise beyond the annual raise that applies to everyone, and no promotions.  In other words, if you were hired in as a researcher or other non-organizing/non-development position, that’s likely all you are ever going to be there, and the only way to get professional advancement is to leave.  In addition, the line between which employees get their own office and which staff has shared offices is not clearly drawn, resulting in two people who have identical roles in different areas’ having very different office arrangements.

Additionally, the organization is quite unwilling to give up the “small nonprofit” mindset, and continually wants to operate in that way, to its own detriment.  Despite having grown from 10 or so people to well over 100 now, the organization still wants to act as though it’s the small size.  Any attempts to introduce structure to the processes of the organization would be routinely ignored by the organizing staff (the largest department), and would subsequently be tossed by the wayside.  This should come as no surprise to anyone, as the organization was formed when a group of renegade employees at another organization split off to form their own organization because they didn’t like the structure and process that the parent organization operated with.  However, as the organization has grown, the lack of structure hindered productivity because there were no formal channels in order for things to be processed in an orderly manner.  The attitude is very “anti-corporate”, which leads to much inefficiency as they refuse to adopt any processes, policies, or procedures that will make them look “too corporate”, despite such processes’ working well.

I think my review was pretty fair.  Then this was another review written by someone else during the time that I worked there:

If you’re not working as an organizer you’re not considered as important (organizers rule the roost), there is little room for career advancement internally (promotions/raises not given much, if ever), some staff can be demanding of other staff, although staff are usually nice.  Sometimes things can become disorderly/chaotic because there are staff working on the ground all over the place.

PROMOTE INTERNALLY to avoid losing top talent!  Promote at all levels of the organization – do not just promote organizers, it is bad for morale for everyone else.  Keep up the good work otherwise!

Looking at more recent Glassdoor reviews, the environment sounds like it got even worse than when I left it.  Here is some of what I found:

The toxic environment internally makes it a terrible place to work.  Most staff is significantly underpaid.  Notoriously sexist, racist, toxic employees not fired and many women and POC constantly leave because of this.  Terrible culture of backstabbing, passive aggressiveness, bullying, gaslighting.  Morale is non-existent.  No attention is paid to professional development.  Massive mission creep.

Executive director needs to retire.  Stop hiring completely unqualified friends of executive director into senior positions.  Fire the notorious offenders.

There is no real mission, no real values, no long term plans.  There is no pay transparency and many people are underpaid.  Some people in management are overtly racist and sexist and absuive and there have been no real steps to change this – people of color, young people and women leave instead of the perpetrators.  A toxic work environment where you are guilted into working long hours.  They are open to feedback, but will do nothing with the information they get (and sometimes even ask you to delete the files containing your feedback).

[Executive Director] is visionary in terms of campaign strategy.  However, she is also a terrible manager of people.  Morale is low.

The opinions of senior management are the only ones that matter, and they aren’t responsive to the ideas or concerns of staff, which are taken as criticism.  This made the culture increasingly toxic.  Senior management micro-manages every project because junior and mid-level staff are not trusted.  Low morale among staff.

Let’s admit: the management was terrible.  The executive director, Wenonah Hauter, was a strong public figurehead for the organization, but was a horrible manager.  I’d dare say that she couldn’t manage her way out of a wet paper bag, much to the organization’s detriment.  If they had separated Hauter’s roles as figurehead and manager into separate positions, the organization would have been better off, with Hauter going off promoting the organization and writing books, while a strong manager oversees the actual operations of the organization.  The head of my department, Lane Brooks, turned scapegoating into an art form, throwing his employees under the proverbial bus in order to save his own hide, using us as cover for his own shortcomings as a manager.  He was a fine example of the Peter principle, i.e. someone who had risen to their level of incompetence. Then the organizing department’s management clearly would have preferred to have been on their own, as they preferred to bypass everyone else and run their department like its own company rather than as part of a larger organization, duplicating functionality provided by other areas of the organization in order to keep it all within their chain of command rather than rely on people from other departments that they didn’t directly control.  Likewise, promotions were relatively uncommon.  One thing that I noticed was that when a new position needed to be filled or a position opened up, it was generally assumed that it would be filled from outside.  It felt like an internal hire only happened when they tried and failed to fill the role from outside, and they settled for someone who was already on staff because they couldn’t find anyone else.  The money, at least as far as I was concerned, was also not great, and I came to realize that I would never be able to meet certain financial goals as long as I was employed there.

I suppose that for all of the nonsense, it’s no wonder why Food & Water Watch, at least when I was there, was generally a place where people worked to get some experience in order to get a better job, or to be able to put work experience in Washington DC on the resume before returning home.  Why try to put out that dumpster fire when you can leave and get better pay and working conditions elsewhere.  You can’t blame anyone for following the path of least resistance.  At the time that I left, with a tenure of six years, I was one of the longest-serving employees in the organization.  Many positions turned over on a relatively frequent basis.

I have to say that I’m proud of my former colleagues for organizing.  I know that they will benefit from this, just like I have by being a member of ATU Local 689.  No longer will Food & Water Watch management be able to unilaterally cut benefits.  No longer will they be able to push people out of the organization like happened to the finance manager and myself.  I imagine that in a union environment, my demotion and the changing of my working conditions (constructive discharge) would never have happened, or at least not been permitted to stand after the filing of a grievance.  I also would think that a union would have protected my position before it ever came to that, rather than what did happen, where it was slowly whittled away to nothing as the organization grew and hired people on in more specialized roles.

This unionization also shows how committed these folks are to the organization.  By unionizing, it says that they are in it for the long haul.  They are a vital part of the organization, and have as much of a stake in the organization’s success as the management and other stakeholders, and as such, deserve a seat at the table.  Making Food & Water Watch into a place where people want to stay rather than getting some experience and then bouncing would benefit them in the long run.  You have longer institutional memory, and the expertise that you develop has a better chance of staying in the organization rather than going to benefit someone else.  Where I work now, most people will spend a career there and then retire after decades of service.  They know the organization very well, warts and all.  Additionally, because of that, it behooves everyone not to make enemies at work, specifically because these people will be your coworkers for decades.  If more people at Food & Water Watch end up staying for a career, I imagine that it will become a much less hostile environment than what I experienced, and the culture of backstabbing and bullying will fade away, because they’re in it for a career, and not just there to get some experience while looking for something better.

All in all, I wish everyone involved in the new Food & Water Workers Union the best of luck in negotiating a good contract.  While no amount of money would ever make me consider going back to Food & Water Watch, I really do want to see the union succeed.

Categories: Work