Asian Americans Advancing Justice Lays Off Staff Members

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Facing a $2 million deficit, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, a major civil rights organization serving the Asian Pacific Islander community of Southern California, laid off about 20 percent of its staff on Monday.

Supporters of the affected staffers, who held a vigil outside AAJC’s Wilshire Boulevard offices on Monday and a protest on Tuesday, allege that the move was in response to union organizing efforts.

Staff member Donna Tang said via Facebook on Monday, “Today, 19 of my colleagues were laid off, effective tomorrow. Given a ONE-day notice. Some have worked here over 30 YEARS. I’ve only been a part of AAAJ-LA for 6 months, but I am asking for community support and solidarity.”

The Board of Directors said in a statement on Monday, “The decisions announced today were made after extensive input and analysis with staff and leadership of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles in order to position our organization to be stronger and more financially stable in the future.

“While difficult, actions taken were critical to allow us to continue the important work of advancing justice in AANHPI communities, all communities of color, immigrants and other marginalized groups moving forward.

“All efforts to reset the organization for success are being done alongside contract negotiations with the union. The board and management fully support the right of staff to organize and will continue to work in good faith with the collective bargaining unit as we have from the beginning.’

“Any characterizations of our intentions otherwise are not true.”

Advancing Justice-Los Angeles was founded in 1983 and was originally known as the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California. It is now affiliated with Advancing Justice organizations in other cities, including San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Unionized staff members, in their “Advancing Injustice” blog, issued the following statement on Monday: “The Collective Bargaining Unit of AFSCME District Council 36 (‘the Union’) at Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles (Advancing Justice-LA) condemns in the strongest terms the sudden announcement of layoffs of 19 staff, including all 6 workers in our Youth and Parent Leadership Development unit, 3 workers in our Asian Language Legal Intake Project (ALLIP), 2 (both) of our workers in Immigrants’ Rights, 2 (both) of our ESL/Civics instructors, 1 worker in Elder Law, 1 worker in Health Access Project, 1 worker in Communications, 1 worker in Litigation, 1 worker in the Immigration Project, and 1 worker in general administration.

“Most of the staff targeted for layoffs were the most active and visible members of our Union, and participated in negotiations and engaged in protected activities to urge Advancing Justice–LA’s board and management to consider other feasible alternatives before resorting to layoffs. The Union’s pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

“Advancing Justice–LA’s board and management have focused their layoff decisions on those who spoke out most openly in defense of their colleagues and the critical work we do on behalf of low-income Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities. Others who have not been picked off in this devastating round of layoffs have been constructively terminated, forced to leave the organization due to the board and management’s refusal to bargain a contract in good faith and relentless determination to proceed with terminations without first meaningfully considering alternatives, such as pay cuts for our highest-paid staff, furloughs, and other less-drastic measures.

“The board and management’s draconian layoff decisions will chill employees’ legally protected right to collectively organize and only strike more fear and anxiety among the staff that remain.

“Over the last few months, the Union has made multiple appeals to Advancing Justice–LA to fulfill its legal duty to bargain with the Union, including over layoffs. Employers with unionized staff must bargain over layoffs, including ‘multiple-motive layoff[s]based partially on labor costs.’ Pan Am. Grain Co. v. N.L.R.B., 558 F.3d 22, 27 (1st Cir. 2009). We are shocked the board and management have, in announcing these layoffs, breached their obligations to bargain with the Union first.

“The Union announces its plans to hold a vigil today … to mourn these gratuitous layoffs, the loss of our colleagues’ livelihoods, and the loss of critical services that our colleagues have provided to the low-income, AANHPI communities in Los Angeles for many years. Community members are welcome.

“Please also join the Union for a picket tomorrow … to protest the layoffs and the effects that these layoffs will have on our staff and the communities we work to serve.”

“At a Crossroads”

In a message posted on Sept. 3, the Board of Directors said that “our organization is currently at a crossroads.

“For the past few months, our board has been grappling with Advancing Justice-LA’s financial and operational challenges, including the fact that we had historically underinvested in our systems, infrastructure and professional development resources for our staff. As the board shared in its Aug. 13 message, the financial and operational stability of Advancing Justice-LA is at stake.

“There are no easy solutions for the difficult challenges ahead, but our board, our founder Stewart Kwoh, our Interim Executive Director Sylia Obaji, and our current senior management team are unwavering in their resolve to revitalize Advancing Justice-LA and ensure continued service on behalf of our communities. They intend to do so while honoring our respect for the rights of our employees, including their right to organize, and the value we place upon collaboration.

“We have honored our commitment to collaboration by sharing with our staff the financial health of Advancing Justice-LA, and by engaging in dialogue with our program and unit directors to generate ideas for measures that might help mitigate the financial and operational challenges we face. Over the past two months, Stewart, Sylia, representatives of our senior management, and members of a board-appointed task force and our board at large have engaged seriously and in good faith with our staff leadership, meeting together on numerous occasions to listen and invite potential solutions and ideas.

“The time is quickly coming when we must fulfill our responsibility to confront head-on the dire financial state of Advancing Justice-LA. Necessary steps are likely to include right-sizing the organization, in addition to reinvigorating our fundraising strategy.

“Nevertheless, in recognition of the difficult choices that lie ahead and in acknowledgment of the value we place on collaboration, our board has agreed to continue the dialogue. In the coming days, we will commence a defined period of facilitated discussion between program and unit directors who wish to participate, representatives of the task force and board at large, and senior management, to continue Advancing Justice-LA’s collaborative efforts to identify and analyze long-term solutions to sustain the organization.

“We remain committed to our mission and our staff, and we believe we will come out of this time a stronger organization better positioned to advance justice for our communities.”

“Nakedly Retaliatory”

The concerned staff on Aug. 12 posted their account of the dispute, which reads, in part: “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 …

“Subsequent actions taken by management, however, dishonor the organization’s history as a leader in the workers’ rights movement.

“On Aug. 17, 2018, management and the CBU began negotiating the organization’s first collective bargaining agreement … 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.

“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’ …

“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 … Interim management repeatedly indicated that it was not actively considering layoffs …

“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 …

“Shortly thereafter, staff learned about the board’s covert actions, and on Aug. 5, 2019, the CBU wrote an open letter to the board and interim management, demanding … a moratorium on layoffs until the collective bargaining agreement was finalized and a response to the letter by Aug. 9. On Aug. 8, 2019 … 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 Sept. 1, 2019, as the effective date for the first of at least two rounds of layoffs.

“On Aug. 9, 2019, the board sent staff an email that failed to fully respond to the CBU’s Aug. 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 hard-working 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.”

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