Employees at The Public Interest Network (TPIN) won their nationwide union via card check in March 2021. After two years of organizing, the group is excited to begin collectively negotiating their new union contract and win some demands that will benefit not just them, but all future coworkers to come.

We interviewed four workers who were heavily involved in the union campaign, each from different organizations within the Network.

Why are employees at The Public Interest Network forming a union?

Mireille Bejjani, Energy Justice Director (Community Action Works): We are organizing because TPIN’s way of operating is outdated, harmful, and unsustainable. Salaries and hourly wages are so low that the jobs are largely inaccessible to anyone without economic privilege, which means that our staff lacks the diversity we need to truly advocate for the public interest. In addition, the internal work culture of unreasonable expectations burns organizers out at a pace that is detrimental to employees’ mental health and to the movement at large.

Rishi Shah, Advocate (Maryland PIRG): The Public Interest Network is filled with people like me who are advocates for the public interest, and now it’s time for us to advocate for a workplace that foregrounds equity, justice and a healthy working environment.

Olivia Perfetti, Western PA Field Organizer (PennEnvironment): The Public Interest Network is organizing because we believe in the work we do, and a union will help us do better and more effective work. Winning hearts and minds and busting paradigms takes many of us and it takes a long time. Our union will make us more democratic, diverse, and improve our working conditions so that we’re empowered to keep doing excellent work, but do it for the long haul.

Will Eley, Deputy Political Director (Fund for the Public Interest): We are organizing for an equitable social change movement, a more-than-living wage, and a sustainable planet. I can add that our union also understands how big of a gateway drug our organization is to the larger progressive movement, so we think a lot about how our effort has the potential to affect the past, present, and future of political organizing. It sounds embellished, but so many people’s first experiences organizing are with a Public Interest Network affiliated group. And because so many have felt exploited by those first experiences, the progressive movement has been losing committed, talented people for decades. We want this generational attrition to stop. 

I am most proud of the space that our union opened for alumni of  our organization. So many of them have so courageously expressed solidarity with our effort by signing on to letters of support and sharing traumatic details from their time at The Public Interest Network. As much as our union is about democratizing the present and future of our workplace, this critical space for revisiting the past is perhaps our biggest achievement–reconciliation and healing begins only after the powers to write history are equitably distributed.

Why did you want to get involved in the union effort?

Mireille: After over three years of working for TPIN, I’ve experienced my share of challenging experiences. I’ve struggled with my own mental health, I’ve grappled with the organization’s strong aversion to incorporating environmental justice in its campaigns, and I’ve watched so many talented organizers leave because of the toxic work culture. I wanted to join the effort because I want to help an organization with such a prominent role in the social change movement be a true positive leader and a supportive funnel into organizing careers for young people across the country. TPIN is the first organizing experience for countless aspiring change-makers, and I want to help ensure it’s a supportive, accessible, formative launchpad for the movement.

Rishi: I’ve worked for the Public Interest Network for the last 3 years, and I’m really proud of the work that my coworkers and I have been able to do to defend consumer interests, serve as public health advocates, bolster the democratic process, and protect the environment. During my time at the Network, I’ve worked with so many brilliant, passionate and talented people who loved what they were doing but weren’t paid enough to afford working at TPIN. I want TPIN to be as strong of an advocate for the public interest as it possibly can be, and I’m so excited to be part of an effort to improve working conditions and increase staff retention.

Olivia: I joined the Public Interest Union’s organizing committee about a year ago when it became clear to me that high-level TPIN leadership had, for decades, dug their heels in on a number of changes that staff overwhelmingly supported, like improving diversity and higher pay. Some of my coworkers had raised these issues with staff directors many years before I did, which showed me that feedback was “going up the chain” but failing to lead to real change.

Will: From 30,000 feet, it was our organization’s history of hostility towards anyone proposing even the most modest internal changes. Additionally, legacy environmental organizations like ours repeatedly failing to recognize and dethrone their white-saturated pasts and presents, respectively, remains foremost as well. 

If I had to pick a day when I decided to say yes to the popular call to action from left-wing Twitter—“Organize your workplace!”—it was January 19th, 2020. That morning, I walked into work thinking about how after nearly five-years at The Public Interest Network, virtually no one who joined staff at the same time I did or even since was still around. Over lunch, one of my original co-conspirators and I talked about the union effort that our management had busted up that previous summer in our Chapel Hill field organizing office. Then that afternoon, I found myself, once again, loaning some money to an entry-level colleague who couldn’t make ends meet even though they were working 50+ hours a week for TPIN, waiting tables on the weekends, and walking dogs for cash during their half-hour lunch breaks. So I guess the verbs “to want” and “to join” don’t exactly capture my experience with The Public Interest Union, to be honest. I felt morally compelled to both protect my friends and see if I actually had the courage to take real risks and act in solidarity with the labor movement, the environmental justice movement, the Movement for Black Lives, and all those intersections. That evening I decided to cap that especially frustrating day at work by leaving a voicemail for Samuel Nelson, who at the time was part of the Labor Working Group for the Metro DC area’s DSA Chapter: “Hey Samuel, my name is Will Eley. I am sorry that I missed the last How to Organize Your Workplace training. Do you have time to chat for a few minutes sometime this week?” 

Two years later, to the day, TPIN Management forwarded our union an offer for voluntary recognition by way of card-check. 

What were some of the challenges?

Mireille: The sheer size and basic structure of the organization were two of the largest hurdles to overcome. Because TPIN is comprised of so many brands across the country, there are countless employees we barely knew and didn’t know how to reach. Slowly chipping away at recruitment and making inroads into all the sub-teams across the network was a gradual and intentional process. In addition, staff turnover is so high that keeping momentum was difficult. The organizing committee ebbed and flowed in size over time, and the core staff doing most of the work shifted drastically as folks moved on to new jobs and new people stepped up.

Rishi: It’s a lengthy process that can feel slow at times. Things like members of the organizing committee leaving staff or recruitment going slowly can be discouraging, but all of the work leading up to the day of going public and actually winning our union has been more than worth it.

Olivia: The greatest challenge our union faced was attrition. Sadly, staff are constantly joining and leaving the network, because we’ve always functioned on a “churn and burn” model of organizing.

Will: The Public Interest Network is infamous for its exceptionally high attrition rates, and the pandemic has only made this systemic feature worse. Ever mindful of this, we knew from the outset that our campaign had to outpace the inherent irony of it all: the reasons why our colleagues would be attracted to our union—having to struggle day in and day out under a work culture defined by low pay, extreme hours, and racist aggression from management—are the very reasons why people were quitting their jobs en masse. Of course, this is the dilemma that every unionization effort faces. 

Thinking back now, I guess the actual challenge for us was making sure colleagues who were new to our movement felt as included and critical to our success as those who had been part of our organizing committee for several months or even years, which can be tough for both veterans and rookies. 

What drove you to believe you’d be successful in winning a union at such a complex, nationwide organization?

Mireille: I knew we’d be successful because we built so much power around this effort, both within the organization and without. As organizers, we know how to put together a campaign plan, how to delve into our targets’ pressure points, and how to leverage tactics effectively. That’s what we’ve done so far through engaging stakeholders ranging from current staff to alumni, members of Congress to teachers unions. We’ve shown publicly that we have power, and that has forced management to adapt their strategy and make concessions.

Rishi: Our union’s organizing committee has so many hard-working people that have already accomplished so much. We’ve gotten support from well over 80% of union-eligible staff, 500 TPIN alumni and 14 U.S. Senators signed a letter in support of the union, and 46 members of the U.S. House endorsed good faith negotiations with our union. We have overwhelming support from inside and outside TPIN and we were able to translate that into a big success.

Olivia: We built and won overwhelming support: a supermajority of authorization cards from eligible staff, a dedicated and hard working organizing committee, the most incredible union organizers at OPEIU (Grace and Kelly) we could have asked for, and a sturdy backbone of alumni, partners and even board members on our side. We’ve certainly worked very hard for this, but it probably helps that we’re a company of organizers, and we were trained very well to do all of the work it takes to build a union 🙂

Will: Absolutely, I was confident. Why? Grace Reckers and Kelly Russo from OPEIU, for starters. Our union is so grateful for the time, capacity, care, expertise, patience, and knowledge they have given us over the past 18 months. 

Also, I feel so lucky that there is just such an overwhelming wave of support out there for us, even from total strangers: Members of Congress and their staff; hundreds of alums of The Public Interest Network, including those who were part of past union efforts that failed; other unions within the non-profit space and beyond. Outside of love, marriage, and being a new dad, this has been the most joyful experience of my life. I think most of my comrades are on the same page about that, too. 

Perhaps we won because of the joy we were for each other along the way.

What advice would you give to other groups who are organizing unions at their workplaces?

Mireille: One really key piece of advice is to not lose sight of why you’re organizing to begin with. The process can take a really long time (years, even), so it can be easy to get sucked into the mechanics of it and forget the motivations that first started the effort. Stay grounded in why you joined and learn about why your coworkers got involved. In addition, don’t lose sight of the vision you’re building. When you’re commiserating with coworkers and recruiting people through conversations about problems with the workplace, it can be difficult to balance that negativity with the new reality you want to create at your organization. Make sure you continue to paint that picture for everyone involved, so you’re driven not just by what you’re moving away from, but also by what you’re moving towards.

Rishi: Enjoy the process! Organizing a union is a unique opportunity to get to know your coworkers and create a better workplace for yourself, the people you work with, and future employees. Take pride in democratizing where you work.

Olivia: You can start building a union with your friends and the coworkers you’re closest with, but eventually, someone is going to have the hard job of reaching out to a coworker who nobody knows. It’s tough because that person might be a security risk, and the conversation might not go the way you want. But just wait until you have one good conversation with a stranger in your workplace who ends up being supportive. You’ll be unstoppable after that.

Will: It is mission critical for your organizing committee to meet weekly: find a time and day that works for most, then make sure everyone feels duty-bound to make nearly every meeting, almost no matter what. It will be tough for those involved to set aside yet another block of time after-hours for a Zoom meeting. That said, trust that showing up for your comrades consistently is one of your most important responsibilities. Even if you are too exhausted on some of those nights to be fully engaged, know that your presence alone in the Zoom gallery can boost morale. Big turnouts for organizing committee meetings—especially when major decisions need to be made—are so reinvigorating. It’s how and why your union will endure. Being there for one another is the whole point. 

An important suffix to all of this: let your family, close friends, roommates, and/or loved ones know not only what you  are up to but why your union effort is so important to you and your coworkers. My wife, as a prime example, understood how important The Public Interest Union was/is to me. And because of that she went above and beyond behind the scenes: taking over feeding and bathing our daughter on Tuesday Organizing Committee meeting nights; helping me design our union’s FAQ pamphlets; and on and on and on.

I mean, secrecy is also important, so don’t tell everyone you know about what you are up to.