Rush Center embroiled in labor dispute, longtime employee fired

A prominent LGBTQ non-profit professional claims that the Rush Center fired him in retaliation for organizing a union for the LGBTQ center’s employees.

James Parker Sheffield (photo) also claimed that the center's board of directors would not allow his union representative in the meeting in which he was fired.

“They terminated me in the room without me knowing what any of my rights were, what I was supposed to be requesting as far as paperwork, nothing,” Sheffield told Project Q Atlanta.

Local lawmakers, former board members and hundreds of people who signed a petition are calling for Sheffield’s reinstatement and for the Rush Center board to recognize the union. The board formally recognized the union Jan. 10, but has not rehired Sheffield.

The incident comes shortly after the resignations of the Rush Center’s longtime leader, Linda Ellis, and several board members. 

The Rush Center is home to the Health Initiative, Georgia Equality, Atlanta Pride, SOJOURN and several other LGBTQ and progressive organizations. Sheffield joined the Health Initiative as director of organizational development in 2012 after 12 years with Atlanta Pride – the final three as executive director. The Health Initiative became a program of the Rush Center in 2018.

Sheffield said he and three other Rush Center employees – Sebastian Beckham Nix, Amir Jones and Darie L.K. Wolfson – worked to address “various workplace issues” with the Rush Center board since January 2019.

Sheffield led the effort for the employees to join the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1996 union after the issues were not resolved. The board was notified Dec. 6 that employees had joined the union, according to Sheffield and Rush Center Board Co-Chair Gail Cowie. Sheffield was fired Dec. 18.

“I was told I was not a good fit for the Rush Center,” Sheffield said.

Sheffield was fired for organizing the workers, according to Valerie Barnhart, political and communications director for UFCW Local 1996. 

“He was the lead organizer and definitely showed it,” she said.

The Rush Center’s actions are not in line with its reputation as a “progressive mecca,” Barnhart added.

The union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging that the Rush Center engaged in unfair labor practices when it fired Sheffield and violated the National Labor Relations Act. 

Cowie said the decision to fire Sheffield was made before the Rush Center was notified about the union. 

“The union effort was in no way a factor in the termination of James’ employment,” she said. “The Rush Center board had no knowledge of the union effort at the time that decision was made.”

'None of this is okay'

 

Several LGBTQ and allied lawmakers called for the Rush Center to reinstate Sheffield and recognize the union.

On Dec. 19, state Rep. Renitta Shannon (second photo, second from left), one of five openly LGBTQ members of the state legislature, asked people to sign a petition calling for Sheffield to be reinstated and the union recognized.

“None of this is okay,” she wrote on Facebook. “Help us demand that James be reinstated and that the union be supported.”

The petition received about 400 signatures by Monday.

State Rep. Bee Nguyen, whose district includes the Rush Center, called Sheffield “an invaluable community organizer” in a letter to the board on Dec. 20. 

“Considering the role that the Phillip Rush Center holds, it would be very concerning to see a lack of recognition of the rights of these workers,” she wrote. “Moreover, it would be distressing to see these workers face retaliation for union organizing.”

State Rep. Sam Park (second photo, right), another of the five openly LGBTQ members of the legislature, called for the board to recognize the union in a Dec.17 letter.

“As the first openly gay man elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, I would not be where I am today if not for the good work of organizations currently housed at the Rush Center,” he wrote.

Emily Halden Brown, a former Rush Center board member, called the Rush Center’s actions “disappointing.”

“Replacing people because they demand accountability from their leaders isn’t a mission-driven strategy for the Rush Center or anyone,” she said. “Is it really okay to tout pro-union values but disenfranchise the workers in our own agencies? It’s a dangerous hypocrisy.”

Brown left the board in November and now lives out of state.

Cowie and Board Co-Chair Sandy Hoke met with Barnhart on Jan. 10 to formally recognize the union. Collective bargaining will happen next.

“We commend this board for their leadership in this decision,” Barnhart said. “We also want to thank and recognize members of the community, especially Atlanta Jobs with Justice, elected officials and all others for their support in this organizing drive. We look forward to meeting at the bargaining table.”

Sheffield said the experience has taken a personal toll on him.

“If there’s one lesson I’ve learned in this, it’s this is why employers don’t like workers talking to each other, because there’s no way to stop the kind of empowerment that comes when that happens,” he said.

Sheffield and Barnhart continue to pursue the unfair labor practices charge against the Rush Center and hope for Sheffield's reinstatement.

New executive director to be named

 

The dispute between Sheffield and the Rush Center board comes at a tumultuous time for the organization. 

Linda Ellis (third photo) stepped down as the longtime executive director of the Health Initiative and the Rush Center in December.

The Rush Center board is interviewing candidates for the interim executive director position and will announce the hiring “soon,” Cowie said.

Several board members – including Brown and Tony Kearney – also resigned in the last few months. The board is looking to fill several open slots, according to Cowie.

“I felt I was not adding value to this one and just never really fit in the dynamic of the board,” Kearney said.

The 12-member board currently has six members, according to Sheffield: Cowie, Hoke, Allysa Greene, Leanne Rubenstein, Dana Shaffner and Atlanta Pride Executive Director Jamie Fergerson.

As the Rush Center struggles with staff changes and the labor dispute, one of its tenants – Atlanta Pride – has also faced board resignations and criticism over its leadership.