DAVID NEEL was drinking with friends and coworkers the night he started talking trash about his manager. This was a mistake.
"I made this statement," Neel tells the Mercury, "that he uses his position of authority to bed down girls who are very impressionable, and I think that's disgusting."
Four days later, on November 6, 2012, Neel's manager fired him. Neel says his manager found out through a mutual acquaintance. That wasn't what really got him fired, he claims, but rather his support for a union.
Neel worked for a Portland call center run by the Fund for the Public Interest, Inc., the nonprofit fundraiser behind progressive groups like Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG). But when employees voted to unionize with the Communication Workers of America in October 2011, the push instigated a pissing match that continues to this day.
In the process, the Oregon AFL-CIO has dropped its support for the Fund for the Public Interest ["Fundraising Hell," News, Nov 21, 2012], organizers say a handful of employees have been fired for their union support, and a labor contract still isn't in place. But now, Neel's case—and the faint whiff of sex talk—might give union organizers a much-needed victory.
Neel's case is now at the National Labor Relations Board's (NLRB) regional office in Seattle where, agency officials say, it's heading toward a settlement. This is as far as the union has ever gone in pressing a retaliation case against the Fund.
Of the employees who felt they were fired for their union stance, about half have filed NLRB retaliation complaints. But only Neel's has yet to be dismissed. Only three other complaints remain open, including a claim that Neel's former boss, Fund Manager Referd "RJ" Raley, threatened to close the Portland call center if the union stuck around—something the Fund did in Los Angeles in 2005 when workers began to organize.
Retaliation claims can be notoriously difficult to prove. This was especially true at the Portland call center, where employees can be fired for not bringing in enough dough. Organizers claim Raley intentionally assigned union leaders call lists that were filled with folks who didn't want to donate.
"You have a week if you're under [quota]," says former Fund employee and union cofounder Michael Schultz, "and then you're put on a warning week. And if you don't make it after [that], you're fired, no matter how many years you've spent there."
Schultz filed a wrongful termination claim after Raley fired him in December 2011, saying Raley purposely gave him "turf" filled with people who just didn't want to fork out money.
"There was a lot of suspicion," says Schultz, "that the [union] leaders in the office were being put on bad lists specifically to weed them out."
The NLRB, however, wasn't convinced, dismissing Schultz's claim and two others.
Neel's retaliation case seems different.
Neel says Raley also dumped bad lists on him—but that he managed to make quota all the same. Neel told the Mercury Raley also accused him of cooking his donation numbers—a charge Neel denies. Neel also suspects Raley didn't care for his previous comments about his love life.
Of the current and former employees who spoke to the Mercury, all said that Raley was known to sleep with subordinates. Most, but not all, say these relationships were consensual. One current employee who dated Raley confirmed she had started a state civil rights complaint. She says she dropped it because he's no longer employed by the Fund.
The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries confirmed the complaint had been started but not followed up on.
Raley, who left the call center in December, emailed a response to the Mercury's request for an interview, saying no charges had ever been filed against him.
"I will not comment on any private/non-work relationships I may or may not have ever been engaged in," he wrote.
As for claims he retaliated against the union, he noted that, to date, none of those claims have officially been upheld: "I understand that some people do not like Fund policies, but merely enforcing standards and holding staff accountable to clearly establish [sic] and communicated standards is not in any way a form of retaliation."
Raley's departure came soon after a top manager from Boston flew out to meet with him, employees say.
This manager didn't comment for this story. But Fund spokeswoman Caitlin Seeley emailed this response: "I can assure you that no employee has or will be disciplined for anything concerning union activity. We continue to implement all of our policies fairly and evenhandedly."
Neel expects to settle in the coming weeks. He says he wants nothing less than his job back, but adds, "I don't believe in what they do anymore.... It's a Ponzi scheme to get money out of progressive people."