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Q&A With Johanna Puno Hester

Celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: Q&A with AFSCME’s Johanna Puno Hester.
By Pablo Ros ·
Q&A With Johanna Puno Hester
Johanna Puno Hester

May is a time to celebrate the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to our country’s economy, diverse culture and richness. During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), we pay tribute to the fastest-growing minority group in the nation, as well as the accomplishments of its many individuals, including labor leaders.

Labor leaders like  Ah Quon McElrath, Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong inspired many of their contemporaries and followers, and they carved out the road ahead for the rest of us.

One of AFSCME’s very own, Johanna Puno Hester, is a champion for the homecare cause in California and leader of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), where she serves as national president. She began her career with AFSCME in 1999 as lead organizer for the Organizing and Field Services Department, organizing 2,000 recreation and park assistants in Los Angeles. She also worked in several other organizing campaigns, including at the University of Maryland and New Mexico University. Today she serves as special assistant to the executive director of United Domestic Workers (UDW), The Homecare Providers Union/AFSCME Local 3930. She is also an AFSCME International vice president.

How did you first become interested in the labor movement?

I was exposed to it through my father, who was a hotel worker and active in his union. He was a shop steward. I was born in the Philippines and by the time I joined him in the U.S. when I was 15, he was a business agent for HERE (as it was known then), Local 2 in San Francisco. I got started in the labor movement because every weekend I had to go to a picket line with him in San Francisco. There was a restaurant that they were viciously fighting with at the time, and a few other hotels. So I was introduced to it in an action-oriented way.

Who inspires you?

Right now who inspires me are mothers who are hard-working and who give their all for their families and to uplift other women. (Johanna is a mother herself; her daughter, Isabel Malaya, is 5 years old.)

What motivates you to keep going every day?

I think what motivates me is my own family and its history in this country. I am lucky to have a job and be documented and working and able to vote in this country. So many immigrants, especially the undocumented, suffer abuse at the hands of employers. That really angers me. But the anger gets turned into motivation to fight back. We have a responsibility to fight back because other people can’t.

What are some of the issues or campaigns you’re currently working on?

I am privileged to work on a campaign called Interpreting for California to build medical interpreting services into the Medi-Cal program. About 50 percent of Medi-Cal patients of California speak English less than well and the interpretation needs are mostly being filled by children or strangers in the hospital halls. We need to change that. Another campaign I am privileged to work on is the child care campaign in California: We’re trying to get more families to have access to quality child care services. We want to win collective bargaining rights for Family Child Care Providers because everyone deserves a voice on the job!  

What personal contribution are you most proud of?

I am personally proud of the work I have done to build a San Diego Chapter of APALA, where we are creating space and uplifting progressive API voices where there has been little or none, as well as the work I have put in to bring the labor-faith, community with border patrol workers in San Diego.  I am truly in a privileged position to be the national president of APALA, which gives a voice to often-unheard Asian American Pacific Islander union members. It’s a national platform to give a progressive voice to union workers. I will continue to use that platform to build power and a better understanding of our community so unions can organize our Asian American Pacific Islander workers, but also to build power for APIs and other workers of color, to form and or join a union.

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