By
MSNBC TV
updated 7/25/2013 9:47:57 AM ET 2013-07-25T13:47:57

America's premier civil liberties advocacy group faces opposition from an unlikely corner: its own employees.

Over the years, the American Civil Liberties has made enemies among the national security state, the religious right, and conservative legislatures across the country. But now it faces opposition from an unexpected corner: its own employees.

For the past four months, ACLU management has been engaged in contract negotiations with the union representing its assistant legal staff, administrative assistants, and other support staff. The conflict seems to be escalating; on Wednesday, union members and other supporters picketed outside ACLU’s national headquarters in New York’s financial district. Union officers estimate that about 50 or 60 people, including all of the roughly 30 unionized ACLU employees, joined the rally.

“The ACLU stands for justice and fair treatment, and they’re really not giving their workers the same,” said Eden Schulz, secretary treasurer for UAW Local 2110, which represents unionized ACLU staff. (Though the United Auto Workers got its start in Midwestern manufacturing plants, it has represented white collar workers in various industries for decades.)

Health care, temporary workers and worker-management arbitration are among the issues at the center of the dispute. For the first time, the ACLU is asking employees to contribute to their health care premiums, attempting to cut paid medical leave, and seeking to expand its ability to hire and retain non-union temps. Members of the union say they can’t afford to make concessions which would undermine their benefits and job security.

“This may not sound like a lot, but it’s actually quite a bit for workers who make $40,000 a year,” said Schulz of the health care contributions. “And the way we feel about it is that once we have given that up, they will never give it back.”

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero, who has not been directly involved in the negotiations, told MSNBC that he believes that management’s demands are reasonable given the current earning power of unionized ACLU workers. He said the maximum employee health care contribution would be $40 per month, and that salaries in the bargaining unit range between $40,546 and almost $76,000.

“I think every New Yorker would say that’s a fair wage,” he said. “We are not exploiting our staff. We pay them well. We are expecting a lot of them; we think the world of them.”

As for why management is demanding concessions after decades of amicable relations with the union, Romero pointed towards broader economic conditions and the dwindling state of the non-profit’s finances. The union contract which expired in March was drafted five years ago, shortly before the 2008 financial collapse and a shifting political landscape eroded the ACLU’s fortunes.

“During many of the Bush years, we were running an income surplus,” said Romero. “We couldn’t spend the money quickly enough, and there was often an excess of revenue over expenses.”

In more recent years, the ACLU has been running a deficit. The organization’s projected deficit in fiscal year 2014 is $8.346 million, in part because of weaker fundraising during the Obama era.

“You’ve seen a falling off in interest for civil liberties. Across the board, most of the progressive advocacy world has seen a drop in contributions,” said Romero. To accommodate for the scarcity of funds, the ACLU has closed offices, held two rounds of layoffs, and cut benefits for non-union staff.

Romero is not directly involved in contract negotiations, and union members say those bargaining on behalf of management have never once brought up financial concerns as a reason for the cutbacks.

“They’ve never once said that their finances are not in shape and that they can’t afford our contract,” said Bennett Stein, a legal administrative assistant and member of Local 2110′s negotiating committee. “Additionally, all of the non-economic proposals are of no expense to them. They are purely worker protections that would not touch their bottom line.”

Though Romero claimed to have no direct knowledge of at least one of those non-economic proposals, it is key to the dispute. Local 2110 members say that the law firm bargaining on behalf of the ACLU is seeking to make it easier for management to fire unionized workers for reasons such as “disloyalty” without first going through arbitration to determine if it was a just cause termination. The lead attorney in negotiations was unavailable for comment.

“They’re trying to gut the ‘just cause’ language in our contract,” said Stein, thereby making it much easier to terminate employees. On wage increases, Schulz said that the union was “flexible,” but she denounced a broadening of the just cause language as “totally outrageous.”

So far, many of ACLU’s non-union staff seem to be on the side of Local 2110. Over 60 of them co-signed a letter to Romero and the non-profit’s directors, urging them to “agree to a contract that does not cut benefits or diminish workplace rights.”

Though relations between the union and management are more acrimonious than usual, they are still nowhere near as bare-knuckled as other prominent labor disputes. Stein told MSNBC.com that the members of Local 2110 do not fear retaliation from management. For his part, Romero said that tough collective bargaining negotiations are “how it should work.”

“It should be case for the collective bargaining unit to represent their best case, their greatest of aspirations, and then it’s for us to negotiate to a place where we both agree,” he said.

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