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Progressive Group’s Former Employees File Complaint With National Labor Relations Board

Former employees of the New Organizing Institute say they were illegally fired after they organized and made their concerns known to leaders of the progressive firm.

Posted on February 26, 2015, at 9:09 a.m. ET

NGP VAN / Via YouTube

New Organizing Institute (NOI) Executive Director Ethan Roeder (left)

Several former employees of the New Organizing Institute — a vaunted progressive training organization struggling to stay afloat after a mass staff exodus earlier this month — have asked the National Labor Relations Board to investigate their dismissals.

The group of employees met with NLRB investigators last Friday at the agency's headquarters in Washington and filed formal complaints against the NOI board, alleging that the institute's leaders illegally retaliated against them for demanding a change in leadership.

Earlier this month, eight senior NOI staffers resigned and several others followed after their demands that Executive Director Ethan Roeder be fired were unmet by the NOI board. According to NOI leadership, layoffs followed the resignations.

Among those NOI management says were laid off, some are now claiming they were fired because they were part of the group that called for the changes in leadership. They see that as illegal retaliation, and that's where the NLRB comes in.

Some of the former employees are seeking back pay while others are interested in getting their jobs back. All of them say they are trying to make a point about how progressive groups talk about workers' rights but, they say, often don't walk the walk.

"I'm not solely worried about NOI. I've seen workers struggle at progressive organizations," said one former NOI staffer familiar with the NLRB complaints. "We fight everyday to do this work to get a fair shake for working people and that has to be reflected in our workplace."

None of the complainants or other former NOI employees reached by BuzzFeed News would speak on the record about the NLRB complaints for fear that attaching their names to them in public could cost them future jobs in the tight-knit professional progressive political world. The NOI complaints appeared on the NLRB website this week.

Those familiar with the complaints say they are largely symbolic. While the former employees are serious about their concerns over NOI, and many are struggling to pay bills after suddenly losing their jobs earlier this month, any NLRB investigation into NOI — should the agency decide to go ahead with one — would probably take a very long time. The goal, those familiar with the complaints say, is to show the rest of the progressive community how bad things were at NOI.

"By filing, it put it out in the public. Now it's something that is out there," said another former staffer familiar with the complaints. "People file against NOI for violating labor rights, it's a point of discussion."

Earlier this year, after a round of layoffs caused by a funding shortage cut the NOI staff significantly, a group of employees started meeting about how to save the group, which has trained a great number of the campaign operatives working in left-leaning Democratic politics today. The employee group came to the conclusion that, along with several other changes, NOI's Executive Director, former Obama campaign data guru Ethan Roeder, needed to be replaced. They submitted an ultimatum to the NOI board that Roeder be dismissed within 48 hours.

From the NOI board's perspective, the ultimatum was a letter of resignation from several top staffers. The day after the ultimatum was delivered, NOI leaders told those staff to leave immediately.

What happened after that is at the heart of the NLRB complaint. NOI leaders say some employees chose to leave when the senior staff was dismissed. Others were laid off, say the NOI leadership.

NOI leadership has told their version of the story several times. In an NOI conference call last week, Roeder laid out the leadership's version of events.

"The board declined to fire me and accepted the resignations of the staff named in the memo. Left without senior managers and still facing a cash shortfall, we laid off additional staff.," he said. "There were departures of a different nature as well. As one observer put it at the time, 'today is a no good, very bad day for the progressive movement.' I agree."

The leadership of NOI is far more tight-lipped when it comes to the details of the NLRB complaints. Through a spokesperson, NOI co-founder and board chair Judith Freeman dismissed the NLRB action.

"The New Organizing Institute has a long history of working alongside organized labor to empower workers across America. We strongly believe in and support the rights of all workers and are proud to have trained hundreds of members of labor unions to better power their organizing efforts," Freeman said in the statement. "We have neither received the complaint to review its contents nor do we know who filed the complaint but we are confident that any such complaint is without merit."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.