A Minnesota climate justice nonprofit fired a prominent Native American organizer, exposing tensions between leadership and a staff that is in the process of unionizing.
Nancy Beaulieu, a longtime Northern Minnesota Organizer with MN350, was fired August 1. Her colleague, Senior Pipeline Resistance Organizer Andy Pearson, was formally reprimanded.
Bealieau, 55, and Pearson, 35, told Sahan Journal that MN350 fired Beaulieu and disciplined Pearson for “timecard deception.” But MN350 staff members charged that it was an attack on the new union.
“I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” said Beaulieu.
MN350 Executive Director Tee McClenty declined to comment on specific personnel matters when reached by Sahan Journal, but disagreed with staffers’ characterization of the situation. She says she herself is a former union member and organizer.
“Under no circumstance has staff been disciplined due to unionization,” McClenty wrote in a statement.
In a separate statement released by McClenty and a majority of the MN350 board, the organization said that an independent human resources firm has been advising MN350 on personnel matters, and that federal labor law prohibits them from publicly disseminating the reasons for disciplining employees who violate employee policy.
Minneapolis-based MN350 is a nonprofit that organizes hundreds of volunteers for environmental campaigns statewide. The organization is based on the 350 movement, an international group with a goal of reducing carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere to below 350 parts per million. Minnesota’s chapter is independent, and the international organization has no authority over it.
MN350 formed in 2011 and became a fixture of Minnesota climate action, particularly in the resistance to the Line 3 pipeline, in which Beaulieu and Pearson played prominent roles. The nonprofit operated with a $1.2 million budget in 2022, mostly funded by grants, according to its annual report.
The organization is split between MN350, a standard advocacy nonprofit, and MN350 Action, which does direct political lobbying. Current and former staff members said that since McClenty was hired in February 2022, it’s become more of a top-down organization that limits its staff organizers.
Workers are still in the process of seeking formal recognition of their union, MN350 Workers United, from management. They are demanding Beaulieu’s reinstatement with back pay and a full investigation of working conditions at MN350.
MN350 Workers United has also filed an unfair labor practices claim with the National Labor Relations Board over the firing of Beaulieu and the disciplining of Pearson. That case is open and pending, records show.
“This firing is an attack on the newly formed MN350 Workers United union and an affront to all who seek workers rights and climate justice,” the group wrote on Facebook.
MN350’s workforce believes the firing and reprimand are retaliatory steps against Beaulieu and Pearson for their work on the union’s organizing committee.
Pearson said MN350 leadership disciplined him and fired Beaulieu for actions they took in response to a request from management.
Pearson said Beaulieu was contacted by MN350 management who directed her to adjust her timecard by identifying the grant fund that her hours should be billed to. Management told her that other people’s pay would be held up until she did this, Pearson said. Beaulieu was on the road and had no computer or internet access, so she called Pearson, who often provides technical support to colleagues.
Pearson said that at Beaulieu’s request, he logged into MN350’s system using her information and added the grant billing information. Beaulieu’s timecard had already been approved and the two needed permission from an office administrator to adjust the grant fund line item, Beaulieu said.
“Nancy had been told unless she figured this out nobody would get paid—that she was holding up payroll for everybody—and management was aware I was helping her,” Pearson said.
He said he didn’t understand why this resulted in heavy disciplinary action, and believed it only made sense as retaliation for their work in the union drive. Other current staff members agreed with his assertion.
“It does seem like they set her up,” said Noelle Cirisan, political manager at MN350.
Beaulieu said her billable hours weren’t changed, only the grant billing information.
“There was no ill intention here; there was no deception,” she said.
Beaulieu worked for MN350 for nearly seven years, mostly leading pipeline resistance and treaty rights organizing in northern Minnesota. An enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, she became involved in Indigenous pipeline resistance during the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016.
MN350 hired Beaulieu as an organizer in their Line 3 resistance movement. She also launched the group’s treaty rights campaign and started a Rock the Native Vote project. For years she felt the organization supported her in doing grassroots organizing as she saw fit, and helped grow a steady base of volunteers.
“As Anishinaabe, there’s more power when we do the work and lead the way,” Bealieau said.
She’s concerned that being fired could impact future employment prospects, and said she is considering filing a civil suit in the matter. Beaulieu will continue her work on treaty rights, and said she is launching a new nonprofit organization called Endazhi-onjii-Anishinaabewiyang, which means “where the Anishinaabeg go to be themselves” in the Ojibwe language.
Ten staff members announced the union on June 12 by reading a letter aloud in a staff meeting.
“Tee’s [McClenty’s] immediate reaction was to say, ‘Congratulations, you’ve got a union,’” said MN350 staff organizer Ulla Nilsen.
But days later, MN350 leadership sent a formal letter to staff that asked them to waive key labor rights: the right to strike, picket, distribute informational leaflets, or petition the National Labor Relations Board. The letter, obtained by Sahan Journal, asked MN350 Workers United to sign on to the agreement to receive formal voluntary recognition, which they declined to do.
The union drive is the process of a card check by the Federal Mediation Conciliation Service, an independent federal agency that provides conflict resolution services, according to MN350 leadership and Workers United.
MN350 Workers United is pushing for recognition with full union rights. The group says it is also in conflict with leadership over who is eligible for union membership. Ten workers signed union cards, Nilsen said, but MN350 leaders said three people with “manager” in their titles shouldn’t be eligible to join.
Cirisan, MN350’s political manager, is one of those three. She said she and the other two don’t have the ability to hire, fire, or set organizational policy.
In her statement to Sahan Journal, McClenty did not respond to direct questions about the union campaign. In a Facebook post on her personal page, she wrote that she is a past union member and organizer who supports labor groups.
“There is a false narrative circulating about MN350 board and me regarding unionization,” said McClenty’s Facebook post. “As many of you know, I have a strong history of being a union member and working in several rioles (sic) in the union including being a board union member, union organizer up to being elected as EVP.”
McClenty’s post briefly noted the challenges she faces as a Black woman running a climate nonprofit. A separate statement she released with a majority of the MN350 board of directors also touched on racial tensions without diving into details.
“I still value the power of unions but not when they create false narratives,” McClenty wrote in her Facebook post. “Not when they create hostile environments for their own political gains. It’s hard enough being a black woman leading a climate environmental justice organization which doesn’t have many BIPOC people in those spaces to add union polarization.”
McClenty’s post did not elaborate further on the dynamic at MN350. She ended the post by saying, “Hopefully the union will respond to my two previous request (sic) to meet and stop playing games.”
In a separate written statement shared with Sahan Journal, McClenty and the MN350 board of directors said they are “fully supportive of MN350 organizers’ rights to unionize.” The statement said that McClenty signed an agreement with an “external Human Resources organization” in October 2022 to provide MN350 with “impartial expertise on personnel issues.”
“This external organization was hired as an effort to ensure impartial and legal decision-making on staffing matters,” the MN350 statement said. “The external organization has been documenting infractions and advising the organization since the agreement was signed.”
The statement also said, without citing specific examples, that MN350 leadership is “concerned about long-standing issues of racism in the organization.”
“The MN350 board recognizes and continues to be concerned about long-standing issues of racism in the organization,” the statement said. “Many BIPOC staff have left over the years up to the present; we recognize change takes concerted effort and actions that can be uncomfortable. The board is committed to rooting out racism in all forms including, but not limited to micro aggression, passive aggression, undermining BIPOC voices, and tokenism.”
The statement said it was written by “the majority of the board” with the approval of MN350’s lawyer, because the group has not hired a public relations firm.
Only one member of the eight-person board, Marcus Mills, responded to interview requests from Sahan Journal. Mills joined the board in 2021 and also is a candidate for Minneapolis City Council in Ward 3. He said he feels unions should be able to operate without restrictions.
“People worked very hard, people bled and died to get those rights for unions,” Mills said. “So like, let’s let them operate.”
But Mills said he can’t speak for the board. The board met on August 11, but Mills declined to discuss what happened during the meeting.
A change in culture
Current and former staff members say there has been a significant change in the way MN350 operates since the organization hired McClenty, who previously worked at NorthPoint Health and Wellness and served as executive director of the Minnesota School Employees Association.
Previously, MN350 had a group of staff members and volunteers who regularly met with and spoke to the board of directors about campaigns and priorities, Beaulieu said. But now that contact is prohibited.
“We have been told we can be terminated if we speak to the board,” Nilsen said.
Beaulieu said the organization feels more corporate now. “That’s why we had to unionize to protect our working rights, and without those rights, we cannot take our power back, we can’t take 350 back,” Beaulieu said.
She joined several of her unionizing colleagues and supportive volunteers at an August 12 demonstration outside of a meeting of 350 groups from across the country at the Danish American Center in south Minneapolis.
Several workers left MN350 in the past year, citing changes in the culture and frustration over what they regard as micromanagement. Joe Morales was hired as an Indigenous organizing director with MN350 in May 2021. He said that shortly after McClenty was hired he was no longer allowed to speak to the press or the board of directors.
Morales was part of a three-person leadership team that helped run the organization during the fall of 2021. He was involved in the process of hiring McClenty as executive director, and said that he was also a candidate for the role.
Although he agreed with the decision to hire McClenty at the time, he thinks that the organization has strayed from its mission. Six months after McClenty was hired, all three members of the leadership team had left, including Morales, who departed in August 2022.
Pearson, a senior pipeline organizer, said MN350 management shut down a previously funded campaign aiming to close the Enbridge Mainline (a system that includes Line 3 and has a key junction in Clearbook, Minnesota). Pearson said he had to contact volunteers he’d recruited to tell them the project wouldn’t move forward.
”We were told that work had to stop, and that was a decision of MN350 leadership,” Pearson said.
Nilsen said she believes that McClenty’s background in healthcare administration led to a change in the way funding is used between nonprofit advocacy work and the direct political lobbying wing, MN350 Action.
In the past, field organizers would spend about 15 percent of their time lobbying the Minnesota Legislature during session. But today, Cirisian, the political manager, said only she can do that. That’s made it harder to have an impact at the Capitol, she said.
All current and former staff who spoke with Sahan Journal said they believe in the mission of MN350 and want the organization to be successful.
“I still care about the staff and the mission of MN350, but I cannot support the organization anymore,” Morales said.