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PUSH Buffalo cited by National Labor Relations Board for violating employees' rights

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Rahwa Grimatzion, executive director of PUSH Buffalo outside of the offices on Buffalo's West Side.

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PUSH Buffalo, a local activist group known for advocating for workers and the underprivileged, is under fire for violating workers' rights.

An administrative law judge for the National Labor Relations Board has found that PUSH Buffalo broke federal law when it effectively forced out one employee and fired another for writing an email to the group's board about its budget.

In the email, the two employees from the community organizing team asked to be involved in the budget process and to be present when PUSH leaders presented the new budget to the board. They cited their concern, based on past experience at PUSH, that employees would lose jobs because of a lack of funding.

The judge determined that those employees were engaging in "protected concerted activity" prior to the organization's actions against them, which was an "unfair labor practice" under federal law.

The judge ordered PUSH to reinstate the two employees, make them whole for any lost wages or new taxes, and pay for any interim expenses incurred from searching for new jobs.

And the organization is struggling to explain what happened, even as it decides by Sept. 24 whether to appeal the Aug. 27 ruling from Washington.

“This finding is difficult because PUSH is well-known as a pro-labor, workers’ rights organization,” PUSH Board Chair Nicolalita Rodriguez said in a statement Friday. “PUSH’s board members are elected from the community, and PUSH hires people from within the communities we serve. The board is committed to ensuring all of PUSH’s workers feel empowered to advocate for themselves and their communities.”

Rodriguez said PUSH is "committed to reflecting on and learning from this experience within a process grounded in community accountability" and would be "reaching out to PUSH's employees and community as we do this work."

PUSH Executive Director Rahwa Ghirmatzion defended the group's actions, saying it tried to be "transparent about our budgeting process, in part to show employees how complex it is to allocate PUSH's resources."

"We will not discharge or otherwise discriminate against any employees for engaging in or planning to engage in 'protected concerted activity,'" Ghirmatzion said.

Yet that's exactly what Judge Arthur J. Amchan found, following his review of the charges filed Jan. 26 by Joanne "Aminah" Johnson and Kathryn Cejka, and a consolidated complaint filed by NLRB's general counsel in April.

Johnson, who was hired in 2006 as one of the first employees at PUSH, was a tenant advocate who tracked "substandard living conditions" and helped tenants in Housing Court. Cejka was hired in October 2019 as a community data and logistics organizer, and later coordinator, making data entry into a software platform called Salesforce.

According to Amchan's report, one of PUSH's deputy directors asked all employees in June 2020 – during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic – to prepare a budget for their work, not including their salary and benefits. A final full budget would be presented to the board in November 2020, and then voted on in January 2021.

But members of the organizing team knew what had happened in prior years when funding fell short, the ruling explained. Johnson asked if the team could be present when the budget was given to the board, but was told no. So she drafted an email that Cejka sent to the board on Aug. 6, and copied Ghirmatzion and the two deputy directors, Amchan said in his ruling.

The note asked for a chance to view the budget in advance of the board, and to attend the board meeting. It was signed by six organizers. Cejka was lectured soon after by one of the deputy directors, while Ghirmatzion fired off an email to the entire team, calling the email "troubling," according to Amchan's decision.

At a meeting with the team the next day, Ghirmatzion called the email "disrespectful" and suggested some of them "don't want to be here." She warned that "we will double back" and "we will be making some very different changes."

"There's clearly no trust here. We can't move forward if we don't trust each other," Ghirmatzion said, according to Amchan. "And it's a mutual thing."

Later that day, Cejka lost access to the Salesforce platform she needed to do her job, at Ghirmatzon's direction, according to Amchan.

Cejka submitted her resignation five days later. Johnson was fired Aug. 27.

Amchan noted that the National Labor Relations Act not only deals with unions and collective bargaining but also allows workers to "engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection."

"There can be no dispute that the Aug. 6 email constituted concerted activity on the part of Cejka, Johnson and the other signatories," he wrote.

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