Trouble found Sunny Rao early the morning of October 30. By the time the Washington State–based data scientist woke up, the group text she shared with several co-workers at the Democratic data firm Civis Analytics had already begun to buzz. “Someone said that they had been fired,” she recalls. Worried, Rao tried to log in to her work computer, only to find it locked. Then she checked her email, and there it was, the news she’d feared: She was terminated effective immediately. No one “even met with me to tell me that I was getting fired or why,” she tells Intelligencer.
Across the country, her co-worker Sarah Klem says she panicked once she got the same bad news. Her health insurance would expire the very next day. “I realized it was the end of the month. I went to the pharmacy to refill a prescription for chronic meds and get my flu shot while I still had insurance,” Klem, who lives in Washington, D.C., explains. Then she helped break the news to Rao, who’d missed it earlier that day because she lives in a different time zone.
Rao and Klem say the company gave them no explanation for their dismissals. The timing was odd, too: Civis was working on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, and the election was only days away. On the Google Hangout meetings, managers did not give a reason for laying off so many staff members at once, according to the fired employees. With nothing else to do, the group text began to put the pieces together. By the end of the day, they’d learned that Civis had fired 11 people. All were vocal activists at work, known among co-workers for their willingness to question company practices in meetings. Instead of experiencing confusion, Klem and Rao began to feel betrayal.
They hadn’t been fired by a large, soulless corporation. They thought they’d chosen a different career path with a different kind of employer. Civis advertised its progressive principles to the world, and it sought employees committed to “social good,” as the company says on its website. Now it had abandoned the same workers without notice, without health care, without cause, in the middle of a deadly public-health crisis.
Twelve current and former Civis employees say the company’s internal practices fell short of its public promise to be a progressive place to work. “We were working to make Civis live up to the values posted on their website,” says an employee who was fired on October 30. In December, seven of those terminated filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging Civis had illegally fired them for organizing. Last month, the NLRB dismissed the charge. An official for the regional board said its decision owed to a Trump-era precedent, according the attorney who represented the Civis employees, that had raised the standard for workers to prove unlawful retaliation. The seven workers say they plan to appeal this week, placing their hopes in the same Biden administration they helped to elect.
“In October — with the election winding down and a few lost customers due to the pandemic — we had an overcapacity of consulting staff broadly,” CEO Dan Wagner said in a statement to Intelligencer, adding that he then “made the difficult decision to lay off ten staff members based on our core values of communication, collaboration & teamwork, and problem-solving.” (An 11th employee was fired for cause. Neither Wagner or a spokesperson for the company would elaborate on the reason, citing confidentiality.)
Wagner said he was “shocked” by the NLRB charge. “Civis has worked with labor unions since we were founded, and we strongly support the rights of workers to organize. We had no knowledge of any potential union organizing efforts and no evidence of it – no emails, no request for meetings, nothing.”
Still, if Wagner is telling the truth, and Civis had no idea that anyone wanted a union, the firings could still violate the National Labor Relations Act. Workers have the right to organize, whether it’s for a union or for leading protests at work. Retaliation is unlawful, and the NLRB can order employers to reinstate workers and offer them back pay — as the company’s new attorneys could tell them. Civis retained Jackson Lewis, a law firm an AFL-CIO official once called “the devil incarnate,” to handle its case at the NLRB.
The allegations against Civis sting more given its origins. Wagner, who was the chief analytics officer for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, built the company to put liberals in power. The pitch was simple. Democratic campaigns needed a network of reliable number-crunchers, and rather than build new analytics teams every four years, candidates could now turn to a single company. During the 2020 election cycle, the firm earned $8.5 million for work on the campaigns of Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren and on other Democratic ventures. While political campaigns still generate much of the company’s revenue, it also works in public health and for various government agencies and, yes, labor unions, like the American Federation of Teachers, to the tune of almost $1 million since 2014.
As Civis expanded its portfolio and grew to about 200 employees, even signing some large corporate clients like McDonald’s, it said it never totally abandoned a liberal litmus test for clients. “We’ll often pursue powerful social good work at a loss, and we’ll responsibly decline work that does wrong, even if it’s lucrative,” reads a company mission statement. That appealed to young idealistic data scientists like Rao.
“There were a couple of things that I considered when I was thinking about a progressive place to work. One was that the work that you’re doing is going to be progressive. For example, I would never want to work with Blackwater,” says Rao. “On the other hand,” she adds, “I expected the way they treat their employees to be relatively progressive as well. To be honest, I’m starting to hate the word progressive, because it feels so meaningless now.”
On its website, Civis makes a lot of promises to prospective workers with principles. “No a**holes,” reads its mission statement. But the former workers all say a banal reality lurked behind the buzzwords: Civis was not all that different from any other corporate employer. In a 2019 incident that still rankles former employees, Wagner announced a companywide pivot — and that meant layoffs — that he called a “CTRL-alt-delete moment” for Civis in a staff meeting. The flippancy infuriated workers, who cite it in conversations with Intelligencer as a sign that portended battles to come.
In March 2020, as the pandemic began and the Democratic primary hit its most frantic tempo, contract employees struggled with heavy workloads and waited for permanent jobs that had been promised but never appeared. Right after the pandemic hit and staff moved to remote work, the company introduced a controversial new policy. Members of its government team now had to hit a quota of billable hours, starting at an average of 37 and a half a week. Civis told staff the new policy would be more equitable than the status quo, which saw some employees billing at much higher rates than others. Quotas aren’t all that unusual for consulting companies, but Civis paired its quota with unlimited paid time off, which was. Workers also had non-billable job responsibilities to perform on top of the quota, and former employees say that when staff took sick leave, even in the middle of a pandemic, they had to make up the hours later. The company had several initiatives designed to improve Civis from within — like a diversity-and-inclusion working group — but, staffers grumbled, where was the time to participate?
The Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers and the subsequent national uprising against racism also accelerated a long-standing demand for greater diversity inside Civis. White people hold most of the company’s ten top-leadership roles, and its overall workforce is described by one of the fired employees as “predominantly white.” For Rao, the problem was personal.
“I was the highest-level woman of color on the government team,” she says. In regular one-on-one meetings with a Civis executive, she says she repeatedly asked for anti-racism training for employees at work. The organization hosted implicit-bias trainings and donated money to five charities, but she felt that didn’t go far enough. Particularly galling for Rao was a summertime presentation by her managers, which singled her out as proof that Civis prized diversity. “When we hired Sunny, we met the Rooney Rule but only interviewed two people,” said one of the slides reviewed by Intelligencer.
“It was basically an implication that I was a diversity hire,” says Rao, who has a doctoral degree and a background in electrical and computer engineering. “When I saw that slide, my immediate reaction was to mute myself, turn off my camera and just start crying.” When she emailed her managers to tell them she felt tokenized by the presentation, Rao says they didn’t seem to understand the problem. They “were both like, ‘Oh, we’re really sorry. We didn’t think you would be upset about this,’” she says. Civis doesn’t deny the incident occurred but, through a spokesperson, says, “HR and managers spoke with Sunny at the time, and this was resolved immediately.
Workers say they coordinated with each other via a private Slack channel and phone calls on how to press Civis for changes. They wanted better paid-leave policies, clearer career progression for contract workers, professional development, and an end to what they called “the progressive pay cut” — a below-market wage offered to young workers in search of jobs that don’t offend their principles. When they raised these issues in staff meetings or one-on-one conversations, three former employees say, managers thanked them for speaking up.
Around the same time, in late May, a senior Civis analyst named David Shor tweeted himself into trouble. Amid mass protests over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Shor shared a link to research that showed a decrease in Democratic votes after similar unrest in 1968. Critics accused him of racial insensitivity. Six days later, Civis fired him, putting the company under a harsh spotlight. Former and current employees say Shor’s firing exacerbated unease with the way Civis managed employees. While commentators dissected the Shor case and its implications for free speech, Civis employees viewed it more as a labor issue, a sign that management was capricious and everyone was vulnerable.
By the fall, the resentment inside Civis came to a boil. Early in October, four former employees recall, a co-worker learned mid-meeting that her grandmother had died. Devastated, she left the call, then asked for bereavement leave in a one-on-one meeting with her manager. It didn’t go well, she later told co-workers who spoke to Intelligencer. The woman’s manager told her that she could take leave — but only if she made up the hours when she returned, her former co-workers recall her saying. Watching the billable-hours policy directly affect a co-worker and friend “made me personally angry and motivated to organize to affect change,” one co-worker tells Intelligencer. Within days of the incident, two employees reached out to a contact at the AFL-CIO for advice on the process of organizing a union.
Separately, Civis employees asked for greater transparency regarding the way the company chose its clients. As the presidential election approached, a Civis contract with Facebook worried a number of staff, including workers who weren’t involved in any conversations about unionization. The employees felt Facebook spread too much hate and had done too little to drive the violent far right off its platform. At an October 20 meeting open to the entire company, employees wanted to know how exactly Civis chose its clients, including Facebook: What good was the Civis litmus test if staff had no say in how it worked?
“Some employees wanted to be given more of a voice in the process. Some employees were fine with the process as it was, but they wanted the rules for deciding a client to be transparent and to be written down and to be communicated,” says an employee who worked for Civis at the time. At least ten employees spoke up at the meeting, all to express concern about the Facebook contracts. That number includes six of the workers who would later be fired. The workers “specifically brought up Facebook, and brought up their concerns, especially with Facebook being a cause of genocide and and spreading unhealthy propaganda,” the source adds. A recent employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says that as of February, Civis is still working with Facebook.
Ten days after that Facebook meeting, Sunny Rao, Sarah Klem, and nine other people were fired. Asked whether they believed their Facebook criticisms contributed to their firings, the workers would not comment. It’s certain, though, that they’d already been vocal company critics for months. Former and current employees tell Intelligencer that the 11 people who lost their jobs were all known internally for their activism at work, though only seven filed a charge with the NLRB.
During a post-layoff staff meeting, a recording of which was provided to Intelligencer, Wagner and managing director of public-sector work Chris Dick told Civis employees that one fired employee had “violated their duty of confidentiality.” Neither Dick nor Wagner offered an explanation for the ten other firings. Wagner said only that the firings “were not financially driven.” Chris Dick even said “the company is in a better position” as a result of the firings. Not long after, Civis posted job advertisements around this time that corresponded to the roles of the fired employees. But by February, Wagner had changed his story, telling employees in a meeting that the firings were budget cutbacks made necessary by the pandemic. “I apologized for not being more transparent in the fall,” Wagner told Intelligencer. Wagner also said the vacant positions were “not backfilled with outside candidates.” Another recent employee says that Civis filled some of the roles with internal applicants.
Though the NLRB’s Chicago office, where Civis workers filed the original charge, didn’t deliver the finding the workers had hoped for, it may not have vindicated Civis either. The employees’ former attorney says the NLRB made it clear that Trump-era precedent had tied its hands: A divided 2019 ruling from the national board raised the bar for workplace activists to prove they’d been fired as retaliation. The case, Electrolux Home Products, Inc. and J’vada Mason, made it easier for employers to invent a pretext and still slide through the board’s review process, says Brandon Magner, a labor lawyer and the author of the Labor Law Lite newsletter.
Now that the seven who filed the NLRB charge have said they will go to the NLRB’s Office of Appeals, the Civis case could end up being more influential than they anticipated. Control of the national board is about to switch parties, as current appointees see their terms expire. “If everything goes the way it should, the ‘Biden board’ will be in place,” Magner explains. If the timing’s right, there’s “a chance” Civis could become a test case for overturning Electrolux, he adds.
Even now, the fired workers say they’re still hopeful there will someday be a union at Civis. “Even at a company that sells itself as a progressive data-science company, good work and workplace policies can easily be stifled by a few bad managers,” Rao says. “We need the collective power of labor to be able to hold organizations accountable, especially when companies prioritize profits over people and working toward social good.”