Carly Matthew was excited in 2020 when she began working at Seed Savers Exchange, a Decorah nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of heirloom seeds.
She went to The Organic Farm School in Washington State for six months to learn all about the trade. This April, when she was promoted to the position of evaluation manager, it seemed the culmination of everything she had been working toward.
“It’s the kind of work that I always dreamed of when I entered in agriculture, and especially when I learned about Seed Savers Exchange,” Matthew said.
That dream turned into a nightmare last week. Matthew alleges Seed Savers “forced me to resign” for refusing to either stop advocating for workers to unionize under the Seed Savers Union or take a voluntary demotion. She chose neither.
“I honestly thought Seed Savers would voluntarily recognize the union to protect their public image,” Matthew said.
Seed Savers’ business revolves around working with local gardeners and farmers to preserve thousands of seeds of various plants to maintain the biodiversity of food systems and ensure varietals don’t go extinct, a growing risk with climate change, industrialized agriculture and seed patents.
“Together the seeds of these varieties compose an irreplaceable genetic resource that may well guarantee the security of our future food supply,” Seed Savers says of their mission on their website. “These rare, diverse seeds ensure that we have varieties adapted to different climate conditions and resistant to certain diseases.”
Matthew is not alone. Former Seed Savers orchard manager Jenn Ripp, another union organizer who worked there for three years, was officially fired for “insubordination.” Ripp says she’ll be filing an unfair labor practice suit in court because she believes she was also let go for helping organize the union.
Both workers say that hasn’t stopped them from continuing to organize, and they say they have majority support among full- and part-time workers.
“Finally, we’ve all gotten frustrated enough with leadership to make this happen,” Ripp said.
The Seed Savers Union is being supported by Teamsters Local #238, said Teamsters secretary/treasurer Jesse Case. He noted Ripp and Matthew “have done a great job of organizing” and built community support in the face of what he called “union-busting tactics” from Seed Savers Exchange.
“It’s sickening how a (nonprofit) with a mission like Seed Savers would choose to engage in union-busting activity, and the Teamsters are engaged in this struggle to help level the playing field,” Case said. “We will help their union build regional and national support to hold Seed Savers accountable.”
For its part, Seed Savers Exchange said it was aware of organizing efforts. It said the company “respects our employees’ rights to form a union” and “have not and will not interfere with” those federally protected rights under the National Labor Rights Act.
“Seed Savers Exchange deeply values our employees and the passion they have for our mission,” spokesperson Meredith Burks said but added, “We do not believe a union is needed at Seed Savers Exchange.”
Ripp and Matthew said they and other workers started having weekly employee meetings in October to talk about what to do about high worker turnover, sudden changes or demotions in job titles and duties, and how departments could be restructured to set workers up for long-term success.
“We were asking for more participatory leadership,” Ripp said, noting workers had also brought such concerns to management. “And it seems like everyone who asked for those sorts of things faced some sort of demotion down the road.”
Two months ago, the process to start the Seed Savers Union began in earnest. Last month, authorization cards were sent out to workers and a petition process began.
Now, Ripp and Matthew are waiting to see if Seed Savers Exchange will voluntarily recognize the union. Both say they remain optimistic the union will eventually be recognized, and hope they can get their jobs back when it does.
“I would love to work with them again—under better working conditions,” Matthew said. “All of us are super passionate about the mission.”
By Amie Rivers
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