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AAPI civil rights group union members speak out after mass layoff

By Brittney Le, AsAmNews Associate Editor
Photos by Bryan Kim. Kim was part of Advancing Justice-LA’s Youth and Parents Leadership Development unit (YPLD). The unit as a whole was affected by the layoffs last Monday.

Both sides of a labor dispute at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles are blaming the “historical underinvestment” in the organization for last week’s mass layoff of 20% of their staff. The layoffs came after a year of unsuccessful negotiations with the union.

“Morale has always been low at Advancing Justice-LA, and has continued to decline in recent years,” said former employee Alison Vu. “Understandably, staff are scared. It’s scary to know that the financial situation has supposedly declined so much that 1/5th of the staff has to be let go suddenly, and that their jobs could be next.”

Vu, who served as Communications Manager for over a year, was one of the 19 employees laid off last week. With the entire communications department gone, she explained how there’s no one left in Advancing Justice-LA to spread awareness and updates throughout the community via email, flyers, and social media.

The Board of Directors issued a statement describing the layoffs as “difficult,” but “critical” for the continuation of Advancing Justice-LA’s work moving forward.

“The decisions announced 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 sustainable in the future,” the board said.

Vu disagreed.

“While all of the staff who were let go were critical to the work that we were doing in the community, many were on the front lines in serving our community. Management and the Board laid off our only Vietnamese and Khmer (Cambodian) hotline staff. So now, if you call for assistance in Hindi, … Vietnamese, or Khmer, there is no one who will pick up the phone or help you” Vu said.

Both ESL / Civics instructors being laid off meant an end to the Civics & English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, which helped immigrants with citizenship interviews; the entire Youth and Parent Leadership Development unit was also let go, leading to the scheduled termination of immigrant youth school programs by the end of 2019.

Legal services provided to the community will likely be impacted as well.

“Our Litigation unit has so few staff left—and remaining staff must absorb departed staff members’ cases, because we have an ethical duty not to abandon our clients under any circumstances,” said Minju Cho, a former fellow at Advancing Justice-LA. “It is unfathomable to me what the Board and management is thinking.”

Cho was a Skadden Fellow in the Impact Litigation unit, focusing on immigrants’ rights. She worked with the union in helping to draft public messaging and organizing actions and has transferred to another organization for her fellowship due to the ongoing internal issues at Advancing Justice-LA.

Cho pointed out that the Board had previously identified certain union leaders to be laid off, so several implicated employees left the organization before the layoff last week. Advancing Justice-LA has allegedly not rehired for the several positions that were vacated in the past year, and tensions have been running high for months.

Three leaders in Impact Litigation, Census Outreach, and Voting Rights at the organization also resigned this week in solidarity with laid off staff.

“In its external messaging the Board and management constantly claim they respect the right of workers to organize, but the truth is they don’t,” said Cho. “Instead, they targeted outspoken union members and leaders for layoffs. In executing layoffs they violated the law by not bargaining over the layoffs and effects of layoffs with the union first, as well as by direct-dealing with laid off staff instead of going through the union.”

That is an accusation the board denies.

“All efforts to reset the organization for success are being done alongside contract negotiations with the union,” Advancing Justice-LA’s board said in its statement. “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.”

AsAmNews reached out to the Board with a set of questions, but it declined to answer and instead sent us only its statement.

Cho said that those laid off last week were only given a single day’s notice to wrap up all their work; the staffers were notified last Monday during a meeting that Tuesday would be their very last day.

The Board allegedly denied requests to give people an extra few days to finish up everything, which included informing clients and community members that they were let go, transferring files and work, and clearing their offices. She said people were locked out of their emails promptly at 5 pm, and private security guards were posted to ensure employees left the building. The union held a vigil that Monday to mourn the layoffs and a picket action the next day.

“It’s also devastating and traumatic to be forced to wrap up all of your work, say goodbye to your contacts, say goodbye to your colleagues, pack up all of your belongings, and everything else that comes with being forced to leave, in less than two business days,” explained Vu.” Even for those that were not laid off, they weren’t able to say goodbye to their friends, teammates, and coworkers.”

According to the union’s blog, management’s lack of action in addressing staff health and safety concerns due to faulty air conditioning resulted in unionization; the union was formally recognized in 2018, but over a year later, no contract that would protect union members has been signed.

Several months ago, as the Board was seeking a successor for founder and executive director Stewart Kwoh and financial issues rose to the surface, which resulted in the Board passing a motion that proposed “right-sizing” the organization.

Cho explained that the union has tried to bargain internally with management for a while now without going public. After repeated attempts to be heard by the Board went supposedly ignored, the union decided to create their blog Advancing Injustice–LA and a Twitter page.

The union claims the Board shared that it has no concrete plan for solving the financial crisis, and while staffers have communicated multiple cost-cutting alternatives to layoffs, “right-sizing” remained a part of the Board’s course of action.

The union has several clear goals they hope to achieve at this point, including a signed contract after bargaining with management, reinstatement for the most vulnerable individuals of the mass layoff, and fair severance packages. Cho said that some staffers were offered less than a week of severance pay.

At its 36th Anniversary Dinner tonight, Advancing Justice-LA was scheduled to honor activist students supporting race-conscious admissions in the Harvard affirmative action lawsuit with the Education Impact Award. In support of the union, the students wrote a letter to Stewart Kwoh and Board Chair Nita Song denying the award and condemning the Board and management.

A GoFundMe page, created to help with rent and medical expenses, states it has raised over $16,000 in less than 48 hours, but it has yet to reach its goal of $20,000.

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