Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, or Advancing Justice-LA, is an organization at a troubled crossroads. Founded in 1983 as the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Advancing Justice-LA is the country’s largest civil rights and legal services organization focused on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. It has built a proud history of advocacy on behalf of immigrants and workers. However, over recent months, its Board of Directors and Interim Management have waged war on the organization’s workers, in flagrant violation of the law and — worse — in defiance of the organization’s fabled legacy.
Line Staff Unionizes
On March 26, 2018, line staff at Advancing Justice-LA presented Management with a petition to voluntarily recognize the creation of a collective bargaining unit (“CBU”) at the organization, to be represented by AFSCME District Council 36. On April 5, 2018, Management agreed to voluntarily recognize the bargaining unit, marking a significant victory for line staff at Advancing Justice-LA, which had long sought a variety of reforms at the organization. In its e-mail to all staff, Management wrote:
At the end of the day, we concluded that voluntarily recognizing a union that represents a majority of our employees is the right thing for us to do because of who we are and what we stand for. As an organization, we are proud of our history as leaders in the workers’ rights movement, litigating ground-breaking cases on behalf of immigrant workers, advocating for strong laws that protect workers, and representing individual workers fighting trafficking and wage theft. We are also proud of our long-standing support of labor organizing, and our collaboration with labor leaders and unions on issues such as immigration.
Subsequent actions taken by Management, however, dishonor the organization’s history as a leader in the workers’ rights movement.
Management’s Anti-Labor Proposals in Contract Negotiations
On August 17, 2018, Management and the CBU began negotiating the organization’s first collective bargaining agreement. Negotiations continue to this day, some twelve months after it started. Over the course of negotiations, Management has made a number of troubling proposals. In response to the CBU’s request for modest wage increases, Management responded with a counter-proposal that failed to even match the cost-of-living increases it had previously given to staff each year. Management presented a proposal that would place draconian limitations, going far beyond common practice in the nonprofit sector, on the CBU’s rights to free speech. Defying standard practices in most collective bargaining agreements, Management also refused to consider incorporating seniority protections and, at least initially, severance packages into the agreement.
An Organization in “Crisis,” Retaliating Against Its Workers
On April 29, 2019, the Board of Directors abruptly announced that Stewart Kwoh, Advancing Justice-LA’s Founding Executive Director, would be stepping down and that Sylia Obaji had been appointed as the organization’s Interim Executive Director. The Board announced that the organization’s three Vice Presidents — Kathleen Chuman, Reshma Shamasunder, and Bonnie Tang — had submitted their letters of resignation, virtually simultaneously. In town hall meetings held with staff, the Board indicated that the organization was in “crisis” and that, specifically, neither the Board nor Management had a clear picture of the organization’s finances. Staff morale plummeted, and over the weeks and months that followed, a number of long-time staff members left the organization.
On June 12, 2019, it was announced that Aileen Louie and Anthony Roh were appointed Interim Vice Presidents of the organization. On June 20, 2019, the CBU wrote an open letter to the Board and Interim Management requesting “greater transparency, accountability, and involvement” in interim decision-making, citing numerous issues that suggested that line staff was “not being heard” and its work “is not being valued.” On June 29, 2019, the CBU sent a follow-up e-mail “reiterat[ing its] commitment to working in partnership with the Executive Management Team and the Board of Directors to stabilize our organization financially and structurally.” To date, neither the Board nor Interim Management has responded to these e-mails.
Meanwhile, contract negotiations with the CBU stalled, as Interim Management cited the lack of financial clarity as reasons to delay continued negotiation. However, in reviewing financial documents submitted by Interim Management, AFSCME analyzed the organization’s finances and concluded that the organization is in stable financial health, with three months’ reserve in unrestricted funding. In early July 2019, the CBU filed with the National Labor Relations Board an unfair labor practice charge, alleging that Interim Management had unlawfully contradicted established past practice by refusing to grant cost-of-living increases during contract negotiations. Interim Management continued to stall contract negotiations, indicating that it was unsure when it would be able to continue discussion with the CBU on economic issues. During negotiations, Interim Management repeatedly indicated that it was not actively considering layoffs.
Nevertheless, on July 25, 2019 — without providing notice to or consulting with the CBU — the Board approved a proposal made by Interim Management to lay off a number of staff members and to dissolve the Impact Litigation Unit, a team that — while financially solvent — had been particularly vocal about its concerns about Interim Management. Furthermore, the only three staff members identified for layoffs by name or position were three employees that had led the campaign to unionize the organization’s line staff. Only a day before these actions, the Board and Interim Management had held a fundraising event celebrating the twenty-fourth anniversary of the El Monte garment workers’ liberation by the Impact Litigation Unit’s predecessor.
Shortly thereafter, staff learned about the Board’s covert actions, and on August 5, 2019, the CBU wrote an open letter to the Board and Interim Management, demanding — among other things — a moratorium on layoffs until the collective bargaining agreement was finalized and a response to the letter by August 9. On August 8, 2019, likely in response to the CBU’s August 5 letter, the Board convened a call in which it identified at least two more employees for layoffs, both of whom have been extremely active in union activities, and aiming for September 1, 2019, as the effective date for the first of at least two rounds of layoffs. On August 9, 2019, the Board sent staff an e-mail that failed to fully respond to the CBU’s August 5 demands and merely confirmed that the rumors concerning layoffs were true.
We believe that the Board and Interim Management’s actions are nakedly retaliatory, anti-union, and anti-progressive. We are deeply saddened to see this conduct take place, at an organization with a robust history of supporting workers’ rights and progressive causes. We do not take lightly our decision to voice our concerns publicly, but we have exhausted every avenue to escalate our concerns internally. We ask for your support as we fight for the hardworking Advancing Justice-LA employees that, day in and day out, provide vital legal services to Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, immigrant, and indigent communities.