The Problem with Precarity in the Animal Advocacy Movement: The Non-Profit Industrial Complex and Union Busting

by Z. Zane McNeill and Riley Valentine

On December 14, 2020, a supermajority of Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) staffers signed cards to form a union – the first at an animal protection organization. The staffers requested that ALDF management voluntarily recognize their union, but management refused and hired Ogletree Deakins, a notorious union-busting law firm. ALDF successfully unionized on March 26th. This a great success, but the need for unionization also illustrates  a tension in the animal nonprofit realm—staffers are heralded as champions for animals, yet they are often precariously employed, underpaid, overworked, and harassed.

ALDF is the reason some people go to law school. Through their Animal Law Program, the organization has created a pipeline for idealistic animal lovers to study animal law, clerk with ALDF, and move into fellowship and staff positions in civil litigation, criminal justice, and legislation at the organization. ALDF focuses on animals in research, captive animals in roadside zoos, companion animals, wildlife, and farm animals. ALDF also uses environmental law to fight factory farms, not only for the animals, but also for the local communities working against environmental racism and degradation. To do so, they build large coalitions with worker advocacy groups, environmental organizations, and other animal groups.  ALDF also lobbies for animal-friendly legislation, sends emergency petitions to US agencies, publishes white papers for policy recommendations, and submits Amicus Curiae for other ongoing litigation.

The union, ALDF United (affiliated with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, which also represents Food and Water Watch) filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board after management refused to recognize the union. Subsequently, employees describe being pressured for weeks on end to attend rolling union busting meetings and were forced on at least one occasion to attend a mandatory captive audience meeting so that management could tell them to vote no. Staff have felt targeted for being pro-union and have faced thinly veiled threats of being fired or otherwise retaliated against if they are seen as ‘whistleblowers.’

Employers are often successful in union busting, spending over $340 million to do so. In many ways this success is due to the situations in which staffers find themselves – young, educated, and swimming in debt in the midst of a pandemic. Since the 2008 Recession, the job market has been precarious for recent college graduates. The precarity of the market has led to a term for the people who are in this new class – the precariat. The precariat is made up of people who pursued an education, took on massive amounts of debt, only to find themselves scrambling for a job. The employees of ALDF, as members of the precariat, are confronted with the terror of student loans and bankruptcy. In many ways, employers are in a better place to bust unions than ever.

The animal advocacy movement has faced mounting criticism for issues such as misogyny (i.e. #MetooAR) and racism. Long hours, low pay, toxic work environments, and traumatic work subjects lead to compassion fatigue and activist burnout. which can cause PTSD-like symptoms in activists and makes it difficult for organization’s to retain talent, especially from marginalized communities. As Food Empowerment Founder lauren Ornelas contended on why animal rights organizations should unionize:

There is a clear pattern of abuse, bullying, sexual harassment, and racist treatment by organizations and an ever-prevalent problem of low wages (again, one reason why I feel the movement is so white), and if you want a salary increase, you are made to feel as if you are taking money away from the animals.

The animal advocacy movement is largely comprised by non-profit organizations. Non-profit organizations are predominantly white – as of 2017 82% of all non-profit employees were white with just 10% of employees being Black. Despite the racial and ethnic makeup of these organizations, they often primarily act in support of, or aid, non-white communities. Nina Martin, in a work on non-profits serving migrant communities, describes non-profits as in tension – trying to ameliorate the systems in which they are embedded. This tension of embeddedness as well as the racial and ethnic differences between employees and communities serves to highlight a central problem of (many) non-profits. By being single issue organizations, they turn a blind eye to intersectional problems. The animal advocacy movement’s active focusing on animal rights by any means necessary leads to a movement that actively sidelines BIPOC people’s concerns. Justice for non-human animals ends up with persecuting human animals. The animal advocacy movement is at odds with itself. It liberates some beings, but not all. By prioritizing non-human animals, they and their predominantly white workforce demonstrate a callousness towards the BIPOC community who are often targeted by the laws animal rights organizations seek to enforce. The problem of the animal advocacy movement is a problem of white organizations.

The recently published collection, Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression, contains an essay by journalist Leah Kirts critiquing ALDF as supporting a carceral veganism that “upholds the belief that locking individuals behind bars will solve a complex social problem.” When a roundtable on anti-carceral veganism was facilitated with legal scholar Justin Marceau, philosopher Dr. Lori Gruen, and Kirts it was not shared on ALDF’s updates email listserv, because it might contain anti-ALDF sentiment. Instead of recognizing potential harm that ALDF may have caused and working towards anti-carceral veganism, ALDF was adamant to instead silence these conversations.

ALDF’s refusal to have these hard conversations– respect and embrace internal, as well as external critiques—was exemplified in its response to the Black Lives Matter movement. On May 25, 2020 George Floyd was murdered by the police in Minneapolis. Groups such as 50by40.  Food Empowerment Project, and Vegan Outreach, as well as many others, came out with statements not only in support of Black Lives Matter, but also action steps concerning how to address histories of racism within the organizations themselves. Many of the staff felt harmed by ALDF’s statement released on Facebook which was written with the belief that a statement in solidarity with Black Lives would also be published. Missing from this statement was any mention of Black Lives Matter or George Floyd’s murder by the police. It was embarrassing for many of the staffers to work for an organization that released a “color-blind” statement.

 In July, staffers drafted a demand letter (which was never sent due to fear of retaliation) to management arguing that ALDF’s silence towards the Black Lives Matter Movement was complicity in white supremacy, writing “ALDF must stand with Black lives, or we have chosen the side of the oppressor. We will either be anti-racist, or we will be racist. There is no middle ground. Simply put, our silence is complicity.”

This tension between management adamant on a single-issue veganism approach and staff’s dedication to a consistent anti-oppression approach is integral to this conversation on unionization. Speciesism—the concept that human life is worth more than nonhumans—is inherently connected with other ‘isms’ such as racism, ableism, and classism. Simply we have found that animal advocacy organizations cannot create sustainable positive change for nonhuman animals, if it also is informed by these hierarchies. As activist Julia Feliz contended in Food Justice: A Primer, “A shared oppression rooted in supremacy means that speciesism and racism, for example, are intrinsically connected, and, because of this, we cannot abolish one without the other.”

Based on the increased traffic for Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at companies such as Encompass, Critical Diversity Solutions, and Jaya Bhumitra LLC, as well as media such as Sentient Media’s Encompass Essays, it seems like the animal advocacy movement was finally ready to reckon with their histories of white supremacy and neoliberalism. However, it seems that while staff are ready to do the work towards a more justice-oriented mission, the leadership teams of many of these organizations are not. It seems that management at animal advocacy organizations prioritize ‘the mission’ of single-issue veganism over intersectional justice and the advocacy of their own employees. That is why unionization is so important to the future of the animal rights movement.

Z. Zane McNeill is an activist-scholar, co-editor of Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression, and the founder of Roots DEI Consulting and Policy.

Riley Valentine is a Ph.D. Candidate at Louisiana State University in Political Science. Their research focuses on neoliberalism, language, and care ethics. They have published work on using Wittgenstein to broaden political discourse. They obtained their B.A. in Political Science from Agnes Scott College.

Artwork: Heather Fraser

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