Down Home N.C. fire local organizers
Over the past few years, political action group Down Home North Carolina has made a name for itself in Western North Carolina by championing issues important to working families, but a recent spate of staff firings in the midst of a unionization drive by its employees — along with allegations of hush money — suggests Down Home doesn’t practice what it preaches when it comes to standing with workers.
“Over the last year I’ve spent so many hours in addition to work hours demanding transparency and accountability from an organization that demands transparency and accountability from people in power,” said Jesse Lee Dunlap, a (former) community organizer with Down Home’s Haywood County chapter. “It’s pretty whack that they are saying that the three people that were let go aren’t working, because we work our butts off and we’re trying to hold Down Home to the ideals that it professes to have.”
Dunlap, along with Haywood-based statewide organizer Chelsea White-Hoglen and another organizer based in Alamance County were unceremoniously terminated late last week. Dunlap found out when they couldn’t get into their company email account and then received an email saying they were terminated with cause, citing “performance history.”
The “with cause” stipulation means Dunlap won’t be eligible for unemployment benefits. White-Hoglen, mother of a newborn and a four-year employee of Down Home, said she’d been given the same reason for termination.
Both Dunlap and White-Hoglen say the terminations are unwarranted, and stem from animosity by Down Home North Carolina Co-director Todd Zimmer.
Dunlap said they’d filed several formal grievances against Zimmer, including one about a policy that states that grievances against Zimmer would be investigated by Zimmer.
White-Hoglen said she’d received a written disciplinary warning from Zimmer about her performance giving her until September to meet certain deliverables, but was given an unachievable corrective plan and was terminated after filing grievances against Zimmer for creating a hostile work environment and failing to follow Down Home’s own rules about performance feedback.
That, and the feeling of being overworked, led to a unionization campaign by Down Home that began last fall. As the effort progressed, Dunlap says Zimmer agreed to voluntarily recognize the proposed union while at the same time hiring a “union-busting” attorney to stymie the effort.
“We’ve been a headache as far as that goes, trying to assert our rights, fighting for our rights within a workers’ rights organization,” Dunlap said.
Dunlap and White-Hoglen both received formal severance agreements, each containing a provision that they’re equating to “hush money.”
Although Dunlap uses “they/them” pronouns, the agreement refers to Dunlap throughout as “she,” and offers Dunlap $10,000 so long as “she will not disclose to anyone other than members of her immediate family, her attorney, or her financial advisor who will agree to keep such matters confidential, any and all facts relating to the negotiations leading up to this Separation Agreement, the terms and contents of this Separation Agreement, the amounts to be paid under this Separation Agreement, and the circumstances leading thereto.”
White-Hoglen was offered more than $20,000. Both Dunlap and Hoglen have refused to sign the agreement, and therefore forfeited the money.
“I refused the money because for one, I didn’t have time to seek legal counsel,” White-Hoglen said, noting that the agreement was received in the morning but had to be signed and returned by 5 p.m. the same day. “I also wanted to be able to tell my story.”
The firings leave Down Home without any organizers in the entire western part of the state. At one time, the group was very active in both Haywood and Jackson counties, opposing the proposed Haywood County jail expansion while also advocating for a living wage and calling for Medicaid expansion.
The timing of the firings and the fact that Dunlap and White-Hoglen were designated as the union’s bargaining unit representatives could spell big trouble for Down Home; White-Hoglen said that the first collective bargaining contract negotiations between Down Home’s administration and its workers took place at 3 p.m. on Aug. 11. By noon on Aug. 12, both had been terminated.
Alan Jones, an organizer with the United Steel Workers, has been helping Down Home’s organizers navigate the unionization process, with plans to incorporate the group as an entity distinct from USW 507 in Canton. He said that he’s requested information from Down Home for review, and that the findings of the investigation could lead to next steps with the National Labor Relations Board.
White-Hoglen said whatever comes of the process, she wouldn’t stop advocating for the issues that led her to become a community organizer in the first place.
“If anything, this makes me feel much more dedicated because to have these injustices in an organization that’s dedicated to fighting for social and economic justice, it just shows how nefarious they are,” she said. “We cannot give up.”
Down Home North Carolina Co-directors Todd Zimmer and Dreama Caldwell both failed to return multiple messages from The Smoky Mountain News seeking comment for this story.
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You gotta respect anyone who will stick to their principles and turn down that much money.