Denver Urban Gardens staffers form union at nonprofit

Denver Urban Gardens staff members this week won voluntary recognition for their months-long unionization project, but workers say that enshrining pay, benefits and other protections at the gardening nonprofit is just the beginning.

“A huge reason why we unionized was not because we were frustrated by where we work or how we’re treated,” said 26-year-old Shay Moon, one of 11 eligible employees who joined the nascent union discussions in April.

“It’s a wonderful organization and we don’t have huge concerns about benefits or pay,” he said. “We’re doing it because, in principle, unions should just be a normal part of the working landscape, and we’re frustrated at the level of union busting and backlash that happens in the American economy.”

Denver Urban Gardens leaders declined interviews and emailed a statement attributed to board president Brooke Gabbert. “Denver Urban Gardens’ leadership and board have voluntarily recognized Denver Urban Gardens Workers United. We are collectively committed to supporting the best interests of all employees, partners and the communities we serve, and look forward to furthering our vision and mission throughout metro Denver and across the nation.”

Moon, DUG’s food access coordinator, said staffers were alarmed by the layoffs at Big Green, a school-gardening profit based in Boulder, that directly followed unionization efforts there. Owned by chef Kimbal Musk (brother of Elon Musk), the nonprofit laid off all of its unionizing members just one month after holding a successful fundraiser in Aspen that included the sale of two bongs for $100,000, according to The Counter.

“We had been paying attention and learning lessons from Meow Wolf Workers Collective,” Moon said, referring to that organization’s successful recognition last year. “The second big lesson was the severely negative response from Big Green, with the union busting and litigation that followed. It spooked a lot of us, and we entered into this with a certain amount of trepidation. We didn’t want to all get fired.”

After an initially quiet response from DUG’s board, the nonprofit’s leaders agreed to recognize the union, which allowed Moon and his compatriots to skirt a formal election. Now they’re waiting for word on when contract negotiations — an opening agreement between the parties — can begin as they celebrate this week’s win.

As first reported by Denverite on Aug. 17, DUG’s staff is young and has grown quickly in the last year, with 20 full-timers. The 10 who signed the unionization letter have been working there for a year or less, according to Moon.

“I hope we can be a source of inspiration for other organizations,” Moon said. ” Denver is full of a lot of collectivist, union-minded young people.”

Unionization drives have popped up regularly on the Denver workers’ landscape this summer, from the Urban Peak nonprofit to Casa Bonita, local Starbucks workers, and longtime coffee shop/bohemian hangout The Mercury Cafe. Creative and service industry workers, the latter of which are typically been underrepresented in unions, are behind much of the push in the metro area.

Moon said DUG’s staffers have been approved to join the Denver Newspaper Guild, part of the Communication Workers of America, which protects more than just workers in the city’s news media and covers various nonprofits.

DUG oversees about 200 gardens in six metro-area counties, including dozens of school plots. For a group that formed through grassroots action in the 1970s — and was formalized as a nonprofit in 1985 — worker projections have been a long time coming.

However, the staffing has turned over significantly in 2021 and 2022 as a controversy drove out board members and workers. Many gardeners at El Oasis — DUG’s largest plot of land, and located in the Highland neighborhood — were shocked when DUG’s board gave gardeners what amounted to 30 days’ notice to vacate El Oasis in advance of a sale to shore up DUG’s finances.

Then-board-president Ramonna Robinson defended the decision as a solution for decreased revenue and increased financial stability. Now, the organization appears to be on solid ground, said Moon, who was not at DUG during the 2021 exodus. With a staff that’s essentially doubled in the past 12 months, it’s the perfect time.

“DUG started as a very informal community project where people were organizing to save a community garden,” Moon said. “At its roots it’s a solidarity project. We think that reestablishing that identity and making sure those politics are realities gets back to our founding. It’s a reawakening.”

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