By DON McINTOSH
Causa of Oregon, the state’s most prominent Latino immigrant rights group, is closing down after 27 years. Posted to its web site July 1, a statement attributed to the group’s board of directors cites “fundraising difficulties and unprecedented turnover among staff and leadership.”
But the statement also takes aim at the union representing Causa workers, Communications Workers of America Local 7901: “As many of you know, we have been unable to finalize a contract with our employees’ union. Causa’s board members are proud to support labor unions and to be a nonprofit with union staff members, and voluntarily recognized the union two years ago. But unfortunately, union leadership has been unwilling to enter mediation or put a fair contract offer to a vote, focusing instead on a damaging public pressure campaign. Our most recent attempt to finalize a contract has gone without a response from the union for nearly 8 weeks.”
Local 7901 president A.J. Mendoza offers a different account. He says it’s true the union bargaining committee didn’t refer Causa’s final offer to members for a vote. But he says that’s because doing so would violate a policy that’s pretty common among unions: Members don’t vote on employer offers; they vote on agreements reached between their bargaining committee and the employer. And Mendoza says the bargaining team couldn’t recommend passage of what Causa called its final offer. Among other things, the offer would have terminated participation in the United Farm Workers’ Juan De La Cruz Farm Workers Pension Plan, and instead tasked a labor-management committee to recommend a retirement plan to the board within 12 months.
As for mediation, Mendoza said it’s most useful when there are only a few small disagreements, not when there’s “a Grand Canyon” between the two sides’ proposals.
According to the board announcement, workers’ last day will be July 8, and the organization will close down by July 31.
A July 1 email to Causa staff from executive director Jenny Pool Radway says the organization was hobbled by continued financial challenges and “unprecedented turnover among employees and board members, along with three executive directors in the past two years.”
Causa of Oregon launched in 1995 to advocate for legislation that would improve the lives of immigrants, and in its farewell letter the Board listed some of its accomplishments over the years, including passage of a law allowing undocumented immigrants to get Oregon drivers licenses, and the passage of sanctuary resolutions in 17 Oregon cities that restrict local police cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Causa is also known as the organizer of an annual march in Salem on May 1, International Workers Day.
Knowing Causa’s reputation as a labor ally, on March 17, 2020, Causa workers sent a video statement to Causa’s board and executive director announcing they were joining Local 7901. Workers were motivated to unionize in part in response to a January 2020 announcement that employee health insurance benefits would be reduced.
The union effort seemed to get off to a good start: Causa’s board voluntarily recognized the union just minutes after it was announced. When negotiations for a first contract started in mid-September 2020, Causa’s bargaining team was led by board vice president Lesly Magdalena Munoz—an experienced union representative at Oregon Education Association who serves teachers in Beaverton School District. Over the next six weeks, Munoz says, the two sides tentatively agreed to about 13 articles, with four or five items remaining. But then, Munoz says, another Causa board member met with an outside attorney without informing her, and persuaded the board to hire the attorney, Jose Klein. Munoz was offended by what she saw as a turn toward a tougher bargaining stance, and resigned from the board Nov. 7, 2020, saying the board’s actions met the definition of white supremacy.
A year later, the two sides still hadn’t reached agreement, and management presented what it called its last, best, and final offer. Local 7901 asked Causa to continue to bargain, but Causa’s board announced in a letter dated Nov. 10, 2021, that it considered bargaining to have reached an impasse and would implement some terms of its own offer and some terms the two sides had tentatively agreed to.
Local 7901 filed charges Nov. 12 with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) saying Causa had unlawfully implemented changes without bargaining and had prematurely declared impasse. Mendoza says there was still movement taking place, and management hadn’t responded to all of the union’s proposals.
The union also went public Nov. 15 with an online petition calling Causa’s bargaining representatives “union busting attorneys.” The petition accused executive director Pool Radway, an immigrant herself, of anti-immigrant rhetoric, and called for her resignation.
The two sides never met again.
In April 2022, Causa brought in attorney Dan Rowan to assist in handling the NLRB charges. Rowan and Pool Radway asked to meet with the union, but that never happened.
The NLRB seemed to agree that Causa had given up too soon on bargaining. In a draft settlement agreement Mendoza shared with the Labor Press, Causa agrees to post a notice saying they will not make changes without first bargaining to good faith impasse with the Union, and would rescind the changes it made, and pay workers for any wages and benefits they lost.
Causa’s dissolution could make that settlement moot.
On July 5, Local 7901 posted an official response to the Causa board statement. “We believe that the announcement from the Board is plainly an attempt to gut a healthy organization, by moving funds, attempt to avoid public accountability for breaking the law and to further avoid obligations to bargain in good faith,” the union said in its statement.
The statement offers no evidence for the belief that union avoidance is the board’s motive for pulling the plug on Causa, but Mendoza points out that Causa is dissolving citing “fundraising difficulties” without having made any kind of emergency funding appeal to supporters.
Pool Radway agreed to answer emailed questions from the Labor Press in consultation with the board, and responded to that specifically. “It was the board’s judgment that, based on the past two years of experience, we would not be able to reach an agreement, nor would we be able to fundraise, recruit, or hire effectively to keep Causa going,” said the email. “It’s important to note that this is a volunteer, working board with folks putting their time into the organization while having full time jobs, families and running small businesses.” [Causa’s board consists of Adriana Barrera, Leland Baxter-Neal, Eric Delehoy, Brendan Dummigan, Yesenia Gallardo-Avila, Ivette Heredia, Aldo Medina, and Aaron Vargas.]
In her email response to questions, Pool-Radway said Causa’s reputation in the community was damaged by union accusations that it was anti-union and that it had engaged in union-busting; accusations that she was anti-immigrant also damaged the organization and her ability to lead. The email says Causa leaders didn’t believe they violated labor law in any way but were willing to resolve the NLRB charges to move forward.
“Causa is a strong ally to labor, has supported staff’s unionization from the beginning, and has never worked to undercut the union in any way,” the email says, adding that the group’s differences with the union were over what contract terms Causa could financially sustain.
As of 2019, the most recent year for which IRS nonprofit disclosures are publicly available, Causa had about $1.1 million a year of revenue and expenses, and was paying its executive director about $60,000 a year.
The closure will result in the layoff of 12 employees. The Causa board statement says the group will use remaining funds to pay severance to staff and make grants to unnamed partner organizations that can continue its work.
For Causa’s allies, the news hit hard.
Causa had a close relationship with Oregon labor organizations, including SEIU Local 503 and the Oregon AFL-CIO. Causa rented its Portland office from the Oregon AFL-CIO. [CWA Local 7901 is also a tenant at the Oregon Labor Center building.]
Causa is also one of 10 sister organizations in a coalition called Alianza Poder that was first convened in 2003 by the Capaces Leadership Institute. The others are PCUN, Farmworker Housing Development Corporation, Mano a Mano Family Center, Latinos Unidos Siempre, Centro de Servicios Para Campesinos, Mujeres Luchadoras Progresistas, Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality, EVOLVE Property Management and Workforce Development, KTUP Radio Poder.
Alianza Poder released its own statement calling on Causa’s staff and board to reconsider: “Causa has been dealing with a deep internal conflict for over two years. This has now resulted in its Board of Directors deciding to dissolve the organization. We’re disheartened and disappointed with the news that Causa is dissolving. Causa is a member of Alianza Poder and as longtime friend and key ally we have been concerned about the current organizational environment, and the lack of settling of the union contract by Causa staff, and management. While we had a sense that the situation was difficult, we do not support the decision to dissolve Causa. We hope the staff and board can reconsider, and make the necessary compromises to settle this contract.”
Despite how it turned out, Lorena Manzo, a Causa staff member since 2006, expressed no regrets about unionizing. Interviewed by phone, Manzo said in Spanish that she wants to send a strong message to the community that workers need to organize when they see injustice at work, and that the protection of a union has great value.
—Staff reporter Colin Staub also contributed reporting to this story.
NOTE: This story has been updated, with substantial additional information added, since the version that appeared July 1, the day the closure was announced.