Naked City

Strike One, You're Out

Aaron Ulmer, the customer service specialist whose firing sparked a strike at Ecology Action, says he was given no reason for his termination by then-executive director Dawn Smyth.
Aaron Ulmer, the customer service specialist whose firing sparked a strike at Ecology Action, says he was given "no reason" for his termination by then-executive director Dawn Smyth.

Employees of nonprofit recycling company Ecology Action were left in employment limbo following a five-day strike that ended Thursday. The 11 striking employees (all but one of EcoAction's tiny staff) were placed "on leave with pay" by interim director Gerry Acuña. Acuña was promoted by the board of directors Thursday, just hours after then-executive director Dawn Smyth resigned in protest. Smyth reportedly turned her keys over to striking staff, who had crossed the street to EA's Ninth Street recycling center from their picket line and offered to work "in protest," telling them that they were "the ones who knew how to run the place."

Though the strike had centered on the June 29 termination of Aaron Ulmer, Ecology Action's customer service specialist, staff say their concerns had been building since Smyth's appointment on June 4.

Staff members claim that Smyth advertised for positions that staff themselves did not know were available and that a list containing board member's names and contact phone numbers was removed from its usual spot on a company bulletin board. Staff members also say that Smyth warned several of them that "big changes" were coming, though specifics about the changes were not forthcoming.

"All of this might be pretty common at a big corporation like Wal-Mart, but at a community-based organization with 11 members, it's ridiculous," Ulmer says.

"Something that's worth our jobs is coming," adds fellow striker John Clement. "And we're not allowed to know what it is."

Smyth was not available for comment, but a report she delivered to the board in June does criticize EA's internal organization, which involved group decisions on matters such as hiring and firing employees.

"Currently EA uses a very democratic, collective management style to make agency decisions," the report reads. "This management style has created inefficiency and a lack of accountability at EA. In the future I will be establishing a hierarchical organization structure and implementing policies and procedures necessary for controls and stronger staff accountability."

Concerned by changes and the talk of changes, staff wrote to their board of directors asking to have their concerns placed on the agenda at the board's June 28 meeting. The request was turned down on the day of the meeting, and Smyth asked staff not to contact the board directly in the future.

Board chair Holly Dogget says the board refused the staff's request because "communication with the staff was no longer productive."

"The board has always been very open to communication with the staff and to hearing their ideas," Dogget says, "but this was just them wanting to call and complain that they didn't like the new director."

The day after the board meeting, Smyth asked Ulmer, who had been active in organizing the staff and drafting the letter to the board, to clear his desk and leave the building by noon. When Ulmer asked for a reason for his termination, he says, Smyth told him there was "no reason."

When Ulmer left, all but one of the agency's staff left with him to form a picket line across the street. New employees were hired to replace them within days, and at the moment the strikers' employment future is up in the air. Dogget says the board will meet with a lawyer in the near future to discuss their legal options. EA staff say that if Ulmer is not reinstated to his old position, they may try to bring a legal challenge against the company, based on the claim that Ulmer was fired for trying to organize the staff into a union. Luckily for this tack, everyone on staff signed their union cards earlier in the spring.

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Ecology Action, Aaron Ulmer, Holly Dogget, Dawn Smyth, John Clement

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