A Look Back at the 2018 Union Drive at Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles

Workers at the largest Asian American non-profit win improvements to recruit, and retain staff and services for the community.

By David Monkawa based on an interview with organizer Billy Yates, AFSCME DC 3. Reposted from Progressive Asian Network of Action (PANA) newsletter.

In late 2018, The community workers of Asian Americans Advancing Justice in LA, CA won their rights to union representation with American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, (AFSCME) District Council 36 In Los Angeles, CA.  The management recognized the worker’s union when a majority of eligible staff signed union cards to express their vote instead of a contentious election that would have challenged the workers claim of majority support. They were not able to win a contract until May 2020.

Workers in the newly formed AFSCME DC 36 Community Workers of AAAJ picket to protest stalled negotiations. Photo from PANA Newsletter.

Below is a statement from Billy Yates representing the workers who were in negotiations.

“It was a hard fought win but we did it! The biggest issues were, the lack of respect, reflected in meager pay and benefits and difficult and unhealthy working conditions. The over-all orientation of the organization was going away from community values and towards corporate donors.”

The air conditioning breaks regularly. The heat is a big problem, but also the air. When the air is not circulated, many report headaches and migraines. We have cancelled clinics to help clients fill out their naturalization applications because of air conditioning on numerous occasions. We know that many of our clients make sacrifices to apply for citizenship. They drive from far distances, take off work or school just to be there because we know them personally. Management does not.

Many of us are young and idealistic and want to serve our communities, but the pay is low and benefits are so-so. We wanted a long term career with improved pay and benefits and  advancement steps. We are valuable resources from the community who want to improve it but many move on to other non-community jobs in order to survive. We believe, the constant revolving door of staff going in and out while only a few of the highest positions remain does not help the community in the long run. We are not unrealistic and know that this job is not about making money. We could try to do that in other jobs.

But we want to be here and for the organization to be true to their community values not corporate donors.

One Korean community worker was fired on made up reasons because she raised good questions that were critical about the services. We did not think she was disruptive, she just questioned company policy But in the end it was the Korean community which suffered since her firing meant a lack of the services she provided.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago supports workers. Reps from Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and the LA County Federation of Labor AFL-CIO also show support. Photo from PANA newsletter.

AAAJ has a long and storied history as one of the largest and most prominent API community advocacy organizations in the US and they have much to contribute. Developments within the organization will have impact on many other non-profits within and beyond the API community, as worker organizing among the non-profit industrial complex has picked up.

AAAJ and many other community non-profits are playing a good role fighting back against Trump and his white supremacists and his Wall St. friends. However, tensions between management and staff over working conditions, pay and philosophy inevitably will come up and real differences in the power to hire & fire, salaries, benefits and prestige cannot be swept under the rug in the name of “unity” to fight against Trump.

In October 2019, 18 AAAJ staff members were laid off (nearly 20% of the state). AAAJ leaders cited a $2 million deficit as a cause, but many activists noted that several union organizers were among those who were let go. Negotiations for a contract stalled.

Addendum from AFSCME DC36 press release May 13, 2020

Even though this was a 2 year fight to us to get this contract, this is the end of a 20 year struggle for the workers that stood before us to finally establish a union at this organization.  I truly believe that this is a monumental moment for the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander movement and we were all able to be a part of its rich history. It’s only fitting that we were able to get this contract signed during the AANHPI heritage month as we honor the leaders before us,” says AAAJ Negotiations Committee Leader Vincent Chou. Their first contract includes:

  • Just Cause Protection for Discipline and Discharge. No longer “At-will” employees; High legal standard for management to prove that discipline or discharge meet “just cause” requirement.

  • Seniority Rights and Grievance Procedurewith binding arbitration to resolve contract disputes.

  • Safety Conditions:The right to file grievances over unsafe working conditions, including appeals to binding arbitration if necessary.

  • Wages:two percent increases per year through 2021. Includes retroactive pay back to January 1, 2019 for all current staff and co-workers who were laid off in October 2019.

  • Wage ReopenerNegotiations set for 2022 and 2023. Merit increases for up to an additional 3 percent.

  • Health Insurance:Limited increases in Kaiser co-pays and employee contributions to monthly premiums. AAAJ agrees to maintain comparable overall benefits for life of this agreement. Maintain current dental and vision benefits.

  • Paid Sick Leave :Improved to 80 hours at start of calendar year for full time staff (up from current 40 hours) with 120 hour cap. Current staff with over 120 hours of sick leave will retain those extra hours in their accrual bank.

  • Vacations:Increase in vacation accruals for long-term staff. Maintain current benefit for all others.

  • Paid Holidays:Add paid days off between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.

  • Other CBA guaranteed rights and benefitsinclude improvements in bereavement leave, retirement benefits, paid memberships in professional organizations, paid sabbatical leave, state bar examination leave, paid parental leave (6 weeks) and Labor Management Committee meetings to maintain on-going voice on the job.

    Billy Yates (front row in black t-shirt) with fellow AAAJ workers. Photo from PANA newsletter.

From the AAAJ Workers’ Union:

The fight is not over. While we acknowledge that this is the best contract given the current circumstances, we also know we deserve better in the future. Specifically, we will be advocating for true affordable health coverage for all; including dependents and family members.

We also want to support other nonprofits who are organizing for workers’ rights. We have learned that the nonprofit industrial complex is very real. While “nonprofits” don’t make profits from their services, that is not an excuse to exploit workers of their passion. Gives us fair wages. We demand true Health for All.

When we fight for ourselves, we fight for our community.

Featured Image:

Image from AFSCME DC 36 press release of May 13, 2020.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *