December 11, 2019 at 4:08 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Nat’l Center for Trans Equality regroups after mass staff departures
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, speaks at a rally for transgender health in front of the White House on May 29, 2019. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In the wake of mass employee departures over a stalemate in union negotiations, the head of the National Center for Transgender Equality is ready to rebuild with an official plan forward — but those former staffers aren’t giving up the fight either.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said Monday in an interview with the Washington Blade after the departures of the employees — which left the non-profit with eight staffers after a high of 21 this year— that new hires are on the way.

“I think that everybody agrees that NCTE is an absolutely integral part of fighting for trans rights here in Washington and around the country, so what we have to do is create the strongest possible NCTE moving forward,” Keisling said.

The plan is laid out in a document obtained exclusively by the Washington Blade titled simply, “The Plan Forward,” which identifies goals for the organization over the course of six month and throughout 2020.

With this plan underway, Keisling said the National Center for Transgender Equality will continue its mission of defending transgender people amid attacks from the Trump administration and elsewhere.

“Trans people are going to be attacked in at least a dozen states in some really horrible ways this year,” Keisling said. “I don’t know if you’ve seen some of these bills that we’re looking at they’re targeting kids, and in particular kids’ doctors and their parents for providing health care. We’re going to have to be in that fight.”

Many of the new hires, Keisling said, will focus on minority relations within the workplace, which was a source of criticism from the former staffers. An accusation of structural racism was a complaint from employees in an organization charged with advancing social justice.

“We are hiring a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, we have an organizational development consultant and we didn’t really have those two things coming up the last time,” Keisling said.

Coaches will also be among the new hires for staff needing assistance for racial equity, supervisors needing assistance with management skills and staffers who are people of color, Keisling said.

The process for making the new hires, Keisling said, will be done differently the next time around. Previously, Keisling said they were done “as resources became available,” which made the non-profit grow three times larger than it was four years earlier.

As part of this new approach, Keisling said the National Center for Transgender Equality will review its internal policies, such as hiring, on-boarding and staff support processes. Moreover, Keisling said the communications and leadership systems will be done with organizational consultants, including a local black-owned consultant group.

“We don’t just have me picking the systems, or us collectively on the fly as we’ve been growing,” Keisling said. 

Additionally, Keisling said another component of the plan going forward is accountability within the transgender community, which she envisions as a national council of advisers that will form sometime early next year.

“This is something that’s been on the table, that we’ve approved doing almost two years ago, but we’ve just been so under siege by the Trump administration, and honestly, by our growth, that we just have not been able to do it,” Keisling said.

Although Keisling said some of the new hires are urgently needed and will have to happen immediately, she said a more systematic approach for other positions is warranted and they won’t hire right away.

“We’re going to be a lot more ‘planful’ — that’s my own, I made that word up — but we’re going to be thinking through a lot more about our work plans,” Keisling said.

Keisling said the National Center for Transgender Equality continues to be in solid financial shape. The most recent IRS 990 for the organization from 2018 reveals $2.75 million in net assets, bringing in $3.2 million in contributions and grants and expending $2.3 million for that year.

But the former employees aren’t done. Their union representative has filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces U.S. labor law, alleging illegal practices from management in negotiations with employees.

As widely reported, employees in September demanded Keisling and her deputy, Lisa Moffet, step down from the National Center for Transgender Equality. When that didn’t happen, the employees were offered a buyout. They declined, instead quitting their positions.

Kayla Blado, president of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, said the basis of the charge against the National Center for Transgender Equality was an attempt at union-busting.

“We believe that the mass layoff of their workers was in retaliation for both organization and for protective collective action,” Blado said.

The layoffs, Blado said, were in retaliation of a mass walkout of employees last month during a union-organizing drive, which she added was a protected activity.

As a remedy, Blado said employees are hoping the NLRB “sees the injustice in this and can help these workers get back to work or find some remedy that suits everyone,” but ultimately it would depend on the outcome of the NLRB investigation. Blado pointed out workers were given two months of severance before the holidays, even though some of those employees had been there for several years.

“Ironically, by NCTE’s own research transgender workers are discriminated against at higher rates and face higher rates of retaliation than their non-trans counterparts, and so they’re basically doing a disservice to their own mission by firing their staff,” Blado said. 

An NLRB spokesperson said the agency received the charge on Nov. 15 and regional staff from Baltimore are investigating the matter. Investigators typically take about three months to complete their work, the spokesperson said, and if they find reason to believe federal law was violated, they will issue a complaint.  

Both Keisling and the union board said a major sticking point was whether supervisors would be placed in the same bargaining unit as the employees they manage.

Blado said management was “dragging out negotiations” over the issue, which involved a single supervisor within the National Center for Transgender Equality.

“The term ‘supervisor’ is kind of a loaded term with NLRB,” Blado said. “And we don’t think this person was an actual supervisor. They managed a worker, but it’s not uncommon for middle managers to be in the bargaining unit.”

To be excluded from a union, Blado said, a worker has to have authority for hiring, firing, disciplinary and salary-setting powers, she said which was not this supervisor.

“Just kind of guiding and directing work of an employee does not qualify as supervisory work, so that shouldn’t preclude someone from being in the union,” Blado said.

Other complaints from workers were unreasonable expectations for commitment to the job, which included 24/7 availability. That level of on the job commitment, workers complained, made an already stressful job of addressing anti-trans attacks — an issue that affected the workers’ own identities — even more stressful.

Keisling said she has tried to run the National Center for Transgender Equality in a “super-heated campaign style way,” but has heard the complaints about the work environment.

“We’re going to step that back a little bit,” Keisling said. “That’s harder to do for an ever-bigger organization, so we’re going to watch that.”

Another source of contention was the dismissal of a black transgender worker. There’s no dispute over whether the termination in and of itself was inappropriate, workers complained over the public nature of that firing.

Blado said the work environment at the National Center for Transgender Equality became “increasingly more toxic,” which included “several incidents where people of color were publicly laid off, like in front of people in the office and yelled at.”

“One of the main reasons that they wanted to form a union in the first place was because of these toxic work inequities and imbalances in power,” Blado said.

For one Afro-Latino non-binary worker in particular, Keisling denied the worker was publicly fired, but said after they were let go, they were forced to clear out her desk in front of other employees, which in hindsight she said was a mistake. 

The termination of the Afro-Latino non-binary employee and unrealistic commitment to the job were two major reasons for the employee walkout last month.

Another issue not stated in negotiations, but spoken more quietly in other circles, is a desire for a change in leadership after having the same executive director for more than a decade. 

Keisling founded the organization in 2003 years just before the ENDA United campaign sought to ensure transgenderinclusion in LGBTQ non-discrimination measures, and remained on the job the since that time. 

But the situation for transgender people has changed wildly since then, and new issues have emerged, such as non-binary visibility and intersectionality of trans people who belong to racial minority groups. 

Keisling declined to say when she might leave the organization, dismissing much of the talk about her stepping down as ageism.

“It just is bad management to say, ‘Well, you’ve been here long enough, you must go,’” Keisling said. “There has to be more to it than that. And I strongly believe I have more to give.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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