Musk nonprofit is union-busting its Memphis organization

By: - August 16, 2021 9:42 am
Students participating in the Memphis Big Green program prepare to harvest. (Photo: Big Green)

Students participating in the Memphis Big Green program prepare to harvest. (Photo: Big Green)

Big Green employees in Memphis are pushing back against union-busting tactics they say the nonprofit is using to keep them from organizing and having more direct communication with the communities they serve. The gardening nonprofit teaches school children about growing food and spending time in nature, but employees say they’re up against corporate lawyers hired to stop their union.

Big Green, founded by billionaire Elon Musk’s brother Kimbal Musk, has locations in cities across the U.S. including Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Memphis. The organization’s website says it builds “learning gardens,” or outdoor classrooms with productive edible gardens  in underserved schools around the country. Several of the nonprofit’s program coordinators, who oversee the learning gardens, first filed a petition to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board July 7, 2021, according to the NLRB website. Since then they’ve filed seven more NLRB petitions and charges and are hoping to get a vote on unionizing soon. If they succeed, they’ll be organizing with the Communication Workers of America.

Big Green was founded by Kimbal Musk, brother of tech billionaire Elon Musk.
Big Green was founded by Kimbal Musk, brother of tech billionaire Elon Musk.

Erika Hansen, a Big Green program coordinator, says conversations about the union started in 2020 during the pandemic. Some workers were furloughed or had hours cut but were never replaced, leaving the team short-staffed. Hansen says Big Green, which serves 140 schools in the Memphis area, told program coordinators it would not voluntarily recognize their union. Although employees haven’t been able to make formal requests from their employer or draw up a contract, they’re hoping for an overall increase in transparency and a seat at the table during decision-making conversations.

“It’d be nice to just have an idea of how that all works and how we can more efficiently spend money to fulfill the mission,” says J.P. Miller, a Big Green program coordinator.

A group of coordinators posted their announcement to seek a union on Instagram in June this year, and in July posted that the nonprofit had hired two lawyers to fight their union. According to the post, lawyers told the coordinators they couldn’t unionize because they were “managers,” although all three Tennessee Lookout spoke with say they don’t have hiring, firing or financial power at the organization. Since then, most communication has come through those lawyers instead of staff members. Although workers are disappointed, they aren’t surprised by Big Green’s actions.

“To have a voice about things that happen in our own communities is an important part of why we’re unionizing,” Jenny Tokheim, another Big Green program coordinator, says. “A lot of folks… [didn’t have] high hopes, but it would’ve been nice if it had gone that way.”

Big Green’s press officer did not respond to repeated requests for comment as of this writing.

Seth Goldstein, who has helped workers around the country organize, also says it isn’t surprising to see a nonprofit try to bust a union, and he says the negative impact on employees is huge. Goldstein says that even cause-driven nonprofits can view their staff as a budget item instead of an asset even though a union can benefit both parties.

“You often see the relationship gets better after there’s a union contract and the parties are able to collaborate in a positive way,” Goldstein says.

Goldstein, senior business representative for Local 153, a chapter of an East Coast nurses’ union, says that labor organizing, however, is on the rise. Goldstein says workers in many industries like tech and healthcare are learning how unions can increase working conditions and wages. He also says younger millennial and Gen Z workers see unions as a way to a better life in tough economic times and a global pandemic.

Goldstein says that unions can be successful in conservative areas, and that it all comes down to the workers. Using social media to raise awareness can be a powerful tool. He says the nurses he works with who recently signed a union contract after a long battle were ultimately successful even though they came from different political parti

“It was really the workers that were able to show the employer they were capable of pushing back,” Goldstein says.”They were able to push forward their issues with, say, staffing and fairness in the workplaces, and they rejected union busting.”

You often see the relationship gets better after there's a union contract and the parties are able to collaborate in a positive way.

– Seth Goldstein

The Big Green group is significantly smaller than Goldstein’s group of 95 nurses. Although they say there were 17 program coordinators before the start of the pandemic, there are only nine now. A simple majority vote required to unionize means they need five votes to succeed, and they’re optimistic. Hansen says other environmental nonprofits and unions follow them online, and says one of the best ways the general public can support them is to follow them on Instagram and interact with their posts. That means Big Green will see more than just their group cares about their working conditions—and Hansen says they also post gardening tips, too.

Despite facing down corporate lawyers hired to stop them, all the program coordinators Tennessee Lookout spoke with are confident they’ll secure the votes. The group recently re-filed their petition and are awaiting a hearing.

“Just because you work for a mission-driven organization, not a huge conglomerate with thousands of employees, doesn’t mean you can’t ask for a seat at the table,” Hansen says.

 

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Abby Lee Hood
Abby Lee Hood

Abby Lee Hood is a queer Nashville-based writer covering justice, LGBTQ issues and more. They are an amateur roller-skater and live with their hedgehog, Noodle, and three-legged cat, Tom. They are writing a debut novel and have published poetry and sci-fi/fantasy short stories.

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