Astine Suleimanyan (courtesy Astine Suleimanyan)

Astine Suleimanyan Works for Labor, Supports Armenians as SoCal Union Political Director


WATERTOWN — Labor unions have a long history, stretching back in one form or another to ancient times. In the United States, modern labor unions began as an attempt to improve conditions for workers during the start of the Industrial Revolution. Astine Suleimanyan may well be the highest-ranking Armenian in the labor movement in the United States at present, as she is the political director for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 121RN, an alliance of nurses and healthcare professionals in Southern California, with headquarters in Pasadena.

Astine Suleimanyan, left, at the state legislature in Sacramento, in February 2023 with California State Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, and Monique Hernandez also from SEIU 121RN (courtesy Astine Suleimanyan Facebook)

Each local union only has one political director, so this is an influential position, especially if the local is a larger influential one like Local 121RN. Suleimanyan said, “The political directors are basically the political leaders of the union. I am the one that figures out what to lobby, what bills are a priority. Obviously I work with our members and we work with our team, but I am the one that pushes it forward. I work with the lobbyist in Sacramento and I am the one that works with International [the top union leadership]. I am basically the connection from labor to our sister locals, out state affiliates, our national affiliates, politicians and all organizations.”

The Union Way

Suleimanyan was born in Abovyan, Armenia, and was five years old when her family moved to Glendale in the late 1980s. She said that in college she, like many Armenians, aspired to go into the medical field, but she had been involved in local politics since she was 15 years old. For example, she knocked on doors for Paul Krekorian’s first schoolboard campaign in Burbank, when Adrin Nazarian was campaign manager. She also volunteered for the Armenian National Committee (ANCA) Western Region.

As an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine (2004-2007) she switched her major to women’s studies and learned about the labor movement. She wanted to work for the American Civil Liberties Union. She did an ANCA internship and this helped her become an ACLU field assistant in Washington. She worked there on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, helping lobbyists push it (it was signed into law in January 2009). It was during this work that she met people in labor organizations such as AFSCME [American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees] and SEIU International, which today has over 2 million members across the US and Canada. After three years in Washington, she wanted to return home to California, and began working there for SEIU International with a one-year contract.

In this job, she said she traveled all around the country. She was in Milwaukee, Wis. for four months, organizing the community there against Governor Scott Walker, who was trying to get rid of unions. She added she joined a march of 100,000 people to Madison, with the teachers union and slept in the capitol as part of the civil disobedience movement. She next went to Ohio and many red states, to oppose efforts to get rid of collective bargaining.

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After all this traveling, in 2013 she began working in Los Angeles for another labor organization called the California School Employees Association (CSEA) as a union representative. She said, “I always wanted to know how to do representation because I felt that would make me a strong advocate for workers.” At CSEA she learned bargaining and arbitration, she said.

She pivoted back to labor politics, working for SEIU Local 2015, which represents long-term care workers, for two years. She managed campaigns for candidates for office endorsed by this local. After this, she became a political organizer for United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the largest teachers union in the state and the second in the country, from 2015 to 2019, this time leading lobbying and field campaign efforts.

Finally, after a three-month stint working as deputy political director and labor liaison in California for Tom Steyer’s 2020 presidential campaign, she returned to SEIU, this time to Local 121RN, working first as legislative coordinator, then interim political director, and finally, from April 2023, as full political director.

Suleimanyan declared that SEIU 121RN had a little over 9,000 members working in Southern California, in Ventura, Inland Empire and Los Angeles County. She said, “All of our hospitals are private hospitals so our fight is a lot bigger than most. There are a lot of challenges in dealing with corporate hospitals.” The union negotiates every contract with each hospital and has a president within each hospital who reports on developments concerning healthcare workers. These presidents serve on the executive board of the union, which has over 30 members. This board, she said, decides on political endorsements, letters, and all types of action on issues to be taken, including priority bills, for which there is a lobbyist at the State Assembly who works with Suleimanyan and the SIEU International lobbyist in Washington.

On February 28, 2023, hundreds of SEIU 121RN members came together to rally in front of St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard and march to the California Public Health Department district office to say, “Patient Safety Can’t Wait.” At left, California Treasurer Fiona Ma, with Astine Suleimanyan at right (courtesy Astine Suleimanyan Instagram).

When asked why union membership numbers and engagement are in a historical decline, Suleimanyan replied, “It doesn’t benefit corporate America for [organized] labor to exist. Corporate America would prefer not to pay its workers a livable wage. It would prefer to have temporary workers, like the Koch brothers, who love temp workers, bring them in, use them as disposable workers, and then let them go. They don’t pay them health care, because it is cutting money from their own pockets. They would rather take this money and give themselves bonuses.”

She said Republicans in general are anti-union for this reason and push for anti-labor laws, such as creating “right to work” states, which are largely red states. In these states, non-union members benefit from union bargaining and representation without having to pay union dues, thus weakening the unions’ strength.

On the contrary, she said, “In my opinion, this is the backbone of the economy: you pay your workers a fair wage, you give your workers health care, you make sure that they are happy. Then a lot of people would say you have a great workforce, and you would not have such economic downturns every single time.”

Representing as Well as Reaching Out to Armenians

With a smile, Suleimanyan confessed, “As committed as I am to the labor movement, I probably would say I am more committed to the Armenian cause. I probably shouldn’t say that, but I am — just naturally, it is who we are.” From the early days of her labor career, Suleimanyan said, “Always, in the back of mind, was how do I use my voice in labor to activate more Armenians and get our issues out across the board. We are a minority that is always overlooked even in California, where [in some places] we have a majority.”

She recalled that because of the limited number of Armenian labor leaders, she became “the Armenian go-to girl,” whenever there were any issues concerning this community. There were some 20,000 Armenian members of SEIU Local 2015 and a big part of her job was to get more of them engaged. Everywhere she would go, Suleimanyan said, she would check the number of Armenian members of each local. For those who want to have some kind of cross-check on official government census figures, this could be useful.

Suleimanyan said that she checks first on (PDI), a political data intelligence database on all voters used by all political campaigns, which allows searching for people of Armenian descent. Secondly, there are databases which can be searched for -ian or -yan endings of surnames. Thirdly, the unions may ask for member language preferences, including Armenian.

Her current union, SEIU Local 121RN, has many Armenian members, as do many other Los Angeles area unions. She exclaimed: “Believe it! In Southern California, they are everywhere. There are nurses, there are county and social workers, our state workers, and our homecare workers are the large majority in the city and county workers.” She said she comes across Armenian stewards and nurses all the time. She said, “For example, we represent a hospital in Burbank. The majority of our nurses there are Armenian. We represent a couple of hospitals in the [San Fernando] Valley and the majority of our nurses there are Armenian. There is just a large number of Armenians.”

When asked why should people in labor unions be involved in international issues, including those concerning Armenians, Suleimanyan replied: “We do it because they [the nationalities concerned] are part of our community of labor. There are 100,000 Armenians in Los Angeles. There are builders, nurses and healthcare workers. We do it, for example, for immigration rights. There is a lot to be said about what we do for API [Asian/Pacific Islander] communities or Black American communities. We fight for communities we encompass.”

A second factor, she said, is that “we fight for mental health every single day in the labor movement…one component is that we are taking care of the communities within our labor movement, and Armenians are big.” She explained that the 2020 war and its aftermath, including what is happening now, has created a lot of trauma impacting Armenian families in the US. This also affects work-life balance and thus is important for the labor movement.

Only a few weeks ago (prior to the Azerbaijani invasion of Artsakh), SEIU 121RN sent a letter to President Joe Biden to ask him to stop the Artsakh humanitarian crisis and end the blockade. SEIU International was heavily involved in getting Biden into office as president and so presumably SEIU communications would carry some weight. Suleimanyan gave the background to the letter, which sheds further light on union commitment to Armenian and other international issues: “To be honest, the Biden letter didn’t come from me. The Biden letter came from our Executive Board, whose members are non-Armenians. They wanted to support me. They wanted to show they stand in solidarity with me. This is a really important issue. They saw how it impacted me and how important it was for their Armenian colleagues as well, so they wanted to have a voice in the process.” She said that this empowered a lot of other Armenian union members to ask their labor organizations to do the same.

Another reason for this kind of support, Suleimanyan said, is that the union members and representatives are not just concerned about their own interests, but have patient care as a main concern. A lot of their patients, in places like Burbank, Encino and Tarzana, are Armenian, she said, and so they have this connection with the Armenian community.

Suleimanyan noted that there is only one organized Armenian labor body in labor in California, the Armenian Caucus of SEIU Local 721 (representing service workers in various fields in Southern California), with which she is in communication. It works to develop leadership among its Armenian members. The latter are largely county workers who have been rank-and-file members for a long time, said Suleimanyan, adding: “I think they do their due diligence. … I always watch them and they do great work.” The members do both union work and Armenian engagement, pushing for whatever they think is needed for the Armenian membership. Shoushan Baghboudarian is the leader of this caucus.

She recalled that it has yearly gatherings at a banquet hall, where many politicians are invited. The caucus and its members take delegations to Armenia. Suleimanyan said, “A lot of elected officials love those trips to Armenia. They always ask me, how can I get to go on one?”

She said that over the last ten years there has not been much growth in Armenian leadership in labor. She thought the reason to be, she said, that “generally speaking the majority of Armenians come from where they don’t trust government and they put the union into that hat, where they feel there is a specific agenda.” She pointed out also that there is a misconception that only progressives or Democrats are in unions, but in fact there are Republicans, anti-vaccine people, and in general very diverse points of view joining together only to improve workplaces and to fight for the workers.

Suleimanyan said that she attempted to get Armenians more involved in labor by having some positive success stories for them. She said she helped to get SEIU 2015 to join in the Armenian Genocide centennial March for Justice in Los Angeles. She said, “We had a very, very large number [of labor union members]. I just loved being there, marching around with non-Armenians. The Armenians were looking at each other and they felt empowered to see non-Armenians and labor marching in solidarity with them.” When she was at UTLA, she helped get it to pass a resolution recognizing the centennial.

Her efforts were recognized in 2017 when she was honored as Armenian Champion of the Year by the Southern California nonprofit organization Parents, Educators/Teachers and Students in Action (PESA) at the Vardavar “Festival of Love” event and given a flag by Congressman Brad Sherman which had flown over the US Capitol.

Astine Suleimanyan, at right, honored in 2017 as Armenian Champion of the Year with the gift of an American flag flown over the nation’s capital (courtesy Astine Suleimanyan Facebook)

SEIU 121RN also releases communications every April 24 on the Genocide.

SEIU 121RN commemorates April 24 (courtesy SEIU Local 2015)

Aside from her official job in labor, Suleimanyan also joined the ANCA Western Region Educational Committee. She worked hard to get the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest such district in the state of California and the second largest in the US, with 650,000 students and 35,000 teachers, to close its schools on April 24 in memory of the Armenian Genocide.

During the Artsakh war, Suleimanyan said that she, along with other representatives of labor, went from city to city and pushed a resolution for the Democratic Party in California to condemn Azerbaijan and stop the war crimes.

Two years ago, the ANCA honored Suleimanyan and the Educational Committee at a gala, and her colleagues at SIEU 121RN bought a table and attended to support her. Suleimanyan said, “I was very happy to see that support from my leadership.”


Suleimanyan worked on the presidential campaign for Tom Steyer in 2020. A billionaire in California, he did not know much about Armenia or Armenian issues, she said, but he hired Rostom Sarkissian as his California deputy director and Suleimanyan as his deputy political director and labor liaison. She recalled, “We walked to him a lot about Armenian issues. I think that as a result of these types of conversations, he became aware. So you now had a candidate running for president who was fully aware of what was going on with Armenian issues and was talking about them in California. He did meet with Armenian leaders. We set that up for him.”

She continued her political activities with SIEU 121RN. Suleimanyan goes to the Armenian television or cable channels often to push for candidates that SIEU endorses. She said: “People who run for office in Glendale, Burbank, the [San Fernando] Valley, the Armenian districts – I am the person they want to have lunch with. I am the person they want to talk with. I am the person they want support from.”

Astine Suleimanyan introduces Dina Lopez from Lancaster and Blanca Carias from Los Angeles for a discussion on political power, December 6, 2014 (courtesy SEIU Local 2015 X account)

She confessed that she also serves on the Government Affairs committee of the ANCA-Western Region, which conducts political endorsements. She said, “It is a little bit challenging because we have our own endorsement process for SIEU 121RN and sometimes the endorsements don’t fall in the same hat. For the most part, ANCA is respectful of the lines I cannot cross.”

At the same time, Suleimanyan said, “I work with everyone. I don’t really get involved in Armenian politics. I feel like I don’t know much about it. I appreciate all of them. As long as we are all working for the same cause, I am happy to do what I can.”

Suleimanyan declared, “In California, I would say that the majority of Armenians are Democrats. There is a misconception that they are conservative, but that is not true. If you pull the numbers, it is very big.” She said that she has looked at the voter demographics for nearly every area in which there are Armenians, and it is approximately 70 percent Democrats and 30 percent Republicans. There are always some undecided too.”

However, she said, “I always say that when it comes to Armenian issues, it is non-partisan. We always have to look at it from a non-partisan angle. Whatever is good for our community is the best approach.” Consequently, she has been working closely with Californian Armenian Democratic politicians or officeholders like Adrin Nazarian, Ardashes Kassakhian and in the past Zareh Sinanyan, as well as Republicans like Ara Najarian, who she said is a good friend.

Back to Armenia

Suleymanian said that she has gone back to Armenia in 2011, 2018, 2021 and this year, and plans to “go more and more, because I just feel the need to go there. I like to spend my American dollars there. I would rather spend it there rather than anywhere else.” She said she tried to meet with people in the labor movement in Armenia but that there does not seem to really be a structure there as in the US. There are a couple of labor bodies but they are not very active, she noted, and workers do not seem to have a strong voice as in the US. She said, “I would love to organize Armenia – that would be a dream of mine.”

She noted that while she was in Yerevan, “there were a million restaurants on every block. I saw 15-16-year-olds working as waiters or waitresses. Those restaurants are often owned by somebody outside of Armenia who is very well off.” She said she spoke to these workers who said they make around $10 a day working 14 hours, sometimes straight, often with no weekends off. There are days that they said they went home with less than that. With restaurants making a lot of money from outside tourists at present, Suleimanyan said the workers should be making more than 10 dollars per day. Labor in the US has moved the minimum wage threshold in the US and could try the same in Armenia.

Political Future?

When asked whether she has any aspirations for political office, she said, “I did want to run for office at one time but now I am very happy as a political director. I feel I have more leverage and more power in this capacity. I can move more things for our community as a political director than as a state assemblymember or legislator.”

She pointed out that a legislator can keep the Armenian Caucus going in Sacramento, but in her current position she has the ability to ask elected officials to do this. She would have many other considerations in her district as an elected official, but, she said, “I have more flexibility as a political director…I get to pick. I know that nurse issues are number one in my work, and when Armenian stuff comes up, I can push for that too.”

Maybe just as importantly, she said when she works to move bills through the legislative process, “I am the one who sometimes makes these tough calls. I call elected officials and tell them how upset I am. I wouldn’t want to be the person on the other line. I want to be the person calling.”

Of course, in the end, with good political sense, she murmured, “Maybe one day. We’ll see.”

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