For three interns at the Organization for Chinese Americans, the largest Asian-American civil rights group in the country, a summer to learn about politics and advocacy ended abruptly with their dismissal two weeks ago.
The interns say they had been critical of some of the organization’s partners, including Walmart, over the course of the summer. And when a video was posted on one of their personal social media accounts depicting the interns making a rude gesture at a Walmart logo, they were told to pack up their bags and leave the organization.
The incident may shine light on the ways in which established civil rights organizations have fallen under influence of business interests. Large corporations — including McDonald’s, Sodexo, Wells Fargo and Walmart — forged close ties to leading civil rights groups with hefty donations. In the case of OCA, which was founded in 1971, some critics fear that these relationships have compromised the organization's direction.
Lisa Lei, a student at the University of California, Irvine and one of the former OCA interns fired for disrespecting Walmart, told The Nation that she had raised concerns about Walmart's efforts to build a new store in downtown Los Angeles, near Chinatown, at a meeting with coworkers. She says she was shut down by her supervisor and told not to criticize the organization’s sponsors.
Later, at the OCA convention in July, which was underwritten in part by Walmart and attended by Walmart’s outreach staff, Lei and two other interns posted a short Instagram video of themselves making a rude gesture about Walmart. The video, which was cross-posted onto one of the intern’s personal Facebook accounts, was discovered, and according to the interns, OCA staff swiftly summoned the students involved. The video was deleted off both of their personal social media accounts. The next morning, says Lei, “We were not given any time to ask why and were told it was because of the video. In less than ten minutes, I was escorted out of the hotel. Within thirty minutes, all three of us were watched and escorted out of the hotel.”
The interns say they were surprised at how harsh they were treated over the video, which was not intended for public dissemination, and that they are dissappointed that OCA has become so close to a company like Walmart.
“I'm not sure if there’s a whole lot I could share with you because this is a personnel issue,” says Tom Hayashi, OCA’s executive director. “The bottom line here is is that these interns were not dismissed because of their particular politics or any of their statements they may have made during the program.”
Hayashi told The Nation that his organization has not taken a position on the Chinatown Walmart issue, and for that matter, takes no position on Walmart’s labor record. But he denies that his neutrality has been influenced by Walmart money. Tax records from the Walmart Foundation show OCA has taken at least $164,400 from the company in recent years.
Walmart has come under criticism not only for alleged gender discrimination, low wages and intimidating labor activists but also for forcing its way into urban communities and displacing local businesses. In Los Angeles’ Chinatown, many Asian-American community groups fear the company will wreak havoc with its new store, which is set to open in the next month.
King Cheung, a Los Angeles activist with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, told The Nation that the new Walmart will be “competing against mom-and-pop groceries, the small stores, and we're worried about that.” Cheung says many Chinatown residents only speak Chinese, Vietnamese or Cambodian, and that they will have trouble finding new work if local businesses close as a result of Walmart’s new store.
Cheung also expressed dismay that several “established” Asian-American groups with financial ties to Walmart have sat on the sidelines with regards to their dispute with the company.
Hayashi says he opposes the “confrontation approach” taken by grassroots activists. He says that his group has a different set of goals. For instance, helping companies like McDonald's to hire more Asian-Americans at both executive and low-level positions. Asked if he has pressed Walmart or McDonald’s to change its treatment of low-wage workers — a demand made by many civil rights organizations — Hayashi said no. “If I pick up the phone and call Walmart or any of our member companies, they will pick up the call and start a dialogue,” says Hayashi, who reiterated his focus on jobs and close communication between the Asian-American community and OCA’s business partners.
Indeed, OCA has championed progressive causes, like immigration reform, but the record shows that the organization appears to also peddle narrow corporate campaigns that reflect the political interests of their sponsor companies.
In 2010, as the Obama administration developed so-called “net neutrality” (also known as “open Internet”) rules to prevent Internet service providers from discriminating based on content, OCA sent a letter to the FCC in opposition to the rule, claiming that “regulating the flexibility of business practices (i.e. treatment of data traffic)” would harm Asian-American entrepreneurs. The largest industry opponents of the regulation, including Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, are sponsors of OCA.
Last year, OCA helped another corporate donor, Southwest Airlines, by filing a request with the Department of Transportation to support Southwest’s bid to open a new route between Houston Hobby Airport and Reagan National.
In addition, tobacco-related litigation reveal a trove of documents showing that companies like Philip Morris used its sponsorship of OCA to forge ties with the community. A file on OCA from Philip Morris notes that its sponsorship of the group helped “introduce and promote PM programs…in the APA community” and help the company “develop, maintain, and strengthen relationships with APA community leaders.”
The sponsorship documents seem to suggest Philip Morrips hoped to use its donations to purchase political support. A Philip Morris strategy document lists OCA as a partner in its plan to confront the Justice Department’s lawsuits against the industry. Another memo lists OCA among “allies” to be tapped in an effort to defeat a Washington State measure to increase tobacco taxes.
A former Walmart executive in charge of the Walmart Foundation’s donation strategy once described the company's philanthropy and reputational management efforts as “a lever” to make “it easier for us to site stores” and to make “it easier for us to stay out of the public limelight when we don't want to be there.”
Asked about these activities, and if corporate donors had influenced the net-neutrality letter or Southwest letter, Hayashi said, “I have no comment.”
This post first appeared at The Nation and is reposted here with permission.
Lee Fang is a reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations, now known as Type Investigations.