A Korean barbecue restaurant now has a union. Supermarkets could be next


At Korean barbecue restaurant Genwa, a plate of prime rib, or galbi, costs around $75.

Kylie Jenner was spotted having lunch there with her then-boyfriend, Tyga.

But workers say that until a year or two ago they weren’t paid for all the hours they worked, didn’t get all the tips they earned and weren’t allowed to take tips. breaks.

Last year they formed a union. And last month, they signed a contract that included a minimum wage of at least $20 an hour and reimbursement of health costs, as well as seniority rights.

Genwa, which has two locations in Los Angeles and one in Beverly Hills, is the first Korean barbecue restaurant in the country to unionize, according to organizers.

Genwa’s 50 or so employees are joining a growing labor movement across the country, from hundreds of Starbucks stores to an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island. Many workers are demanding better treatment at a time when low-wage earners are struggling to pay their bills and the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.

Labor experts and Asian American community leaders say Genwa can serve as a model for organizing immigrant workers, who may be unaware of their rights, afraid to speak up, or hampered by language and cultural barriers.

Encouraged by the Genwa victory, organizers are trying to convince workers at other Korean companies, including the Hannam Chain supermarket, that forming a union is in their best interest.

In Koreatown, merging support for a union can be particularly difficult. Many companies employ Asian and Latino workers with different native languages ​​who are sometimes treated differently by the owners.

But “when workers could actually show it could be done, it encourages other workers to take action,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.

For memory :

5:34 p.m. July 22, 2022An earlier version of this story said that Jenny Kim is a Korean immigrant. She was born in the United States.

When Jenny Kim started working at Genwa in Mid-Wilshire in February 2016, the restaurant felt like a family.

The smell of grilled meat – galbi and chadolbagi, or thinly sliced ​​brisket – reminded him of his mother’s cooking.

But as she worked as a waitress, preparing a range of banchan – side dishes – from kimchi to fishcakes and turning meat over grills at customer tables, she began to realize that she was short of wages and tips.

With fewer hours logged on her paycheck than she actually worked, she essentially earned less than minimum wage. After hours spent on her feet balancing plates of meat, she got no breaks.

She calculated that she owed nearly $50,000 in wages and penalties.

When she brought up the issue, her manager told her to shut up about it, Kim said.

Genwa denied the allegations by Kim and other workers, blaming any problems on paperwork errors.

A survey of low-wage Asian and Latino workers in California released last year, which included restaurant workers, found a majority were paid $15 an hour or less. Nearly 20% earned less than $12 an hour — the state’s minimum wage for small employers in 2020, when workers were surveyed.

Sometimes immigrant employers can pressure other immigrants to settle disputes internally, experts said.

“They have this co-ethnic employee-employer relationship that often undermines the ability of workers to air grievances and report abuse,” said Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center.

Steven Chung, one of Genwa’s longest-serving employees, was a floor manager when more and more workers started telling him about their insufficient paychecks.

The number of hours recorded on his own check was less than he actually worked, he said.

When he complained to Jeannie Kwon, the landlady who hired him, she told him to go on vacation, he said.

Kwon promptly fired him, Chung said.

Chung and Kim were among the Genwa workers who contacted the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance in late 2017. They weren’t trying to form a union, they just wanted to get paid for their work.

KIWA has long championed Koreatown workers. Executive director Alexandra Suh keeps a photo of workers picketing the famous Korean barbecue restaurant Chosun Galbee in the late 1990s.

In the early 2000s, KIWA made living wage agreements at many grocery stores in Koreatown. But these pacts have since failed and KIWA has never succeeded in organizing a union.

Sometimes owners try to divide workers along ethnic lines, as happened during an unsuccessful organizing campaign by KIWA at Assi market in 2002.

As with many Korean-owned restaurants, Korean immigrants to Genwa were often waiters and waiters, while Latinos were lower-paid cooks and dishwashers.

Restaurant turnover can also be a barrier to unionization.

By 2019, when José-Roberto Hernández became organizational director at KIWA, many workers from the original Genwa group, including Chung and Kim, had left the restaurant.

The new workers had reservations about KIWA and forming a union. Some felt organizers’ tactics, such as picketing restaurants and the owner’s house, were too aggressive.

As the organizing campaign gained momentum, the pandemic hit, forcing the restaurant to temporarily close and lay off nearly all of its employees.

Meanwhile, in March 2020, the California labor commissioner’s office fined Genwa $2.1 million for wage theft and labor law violations involving more than 300 workers.

A payroll audit showed that they were regularly forced to work outside working hours and were not given rest or meal breaks. Almost half did not receive minimum wage and more than half were denied overtime pay, the audit found.

Among the union organizers were former Genwa workers. After the restaurant reopened, they helped convince enough former colleagues – even those who were happy with their jobs – that the union would give workers a voice.

Workers also debated among themselves the merits of the union, sometimes in a mixture of Spanish and Korean.

Last July, a large majority of them filed union authorization cards. The owners voluntarily recognized the union, known as the California Retail & Restaurant Worker Union.

Genwa owner Jay B. Kwon has apologized to any workers “who feel they have not been treated fairly” in the past.

“We now look forward to the opportunity to work with the California Restaurant and Retail Workers Union to model dignity, fairness, respect, quality jobs, and excellent service and food,” Kwon said in a statement released after him and the union. ratified a first contract last month. “I hope this is a model for restaurants across the industry.”

In a separate statement sent to Korean-language media and The Times, Kwon said Genwa had settled the fine with the state for “a lesser amount.”

Kwon also said the pandemic has changed the way he runs his restaurants and made it more important to retain employees and provide a stable work environment. The union can contribute to restaurants’ long-term goals, he said.

Yongho Kim is the owner of Arado Japanese Cuisine in Koreatown and president of the Korean American Food Industry Association, which represents restaurant owners.

Kim said Genwa may not be typical of most restaurants, given its relatively large size and high-end clientele. He doesn’t expect unions to take hold of many small family restaurants in Koreatown, but he acknowledges that some restaurateurs need to be educated about labor rights.

Martorell of the Thai Community Development Center said organizing workers in Asian American communities remains a challenge.

But at Hannam Chain, the organizing drive may gain momentum, with employees recently petitioning the company to discuss working conditions, KIWA’s Hernandez said.

“The workers at Hannam Chain LA have made it one of the most successful and recognized Korean grocery stores in the United States,” Sen. María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) said in a letter to owners in March. . . “They deserve more.”

Rebecca Nathan, who helped organize her former colleagues after she left Genwa, welcomed clauses in the new contract requiring workers and managers to take training on sexual harassment.

Nathan, 28, said when she was a bartender at the restaurant, her manager reported her for being gay. This led to a barrage of sexually harassing comments from co-workers, with little pushback or discipline from superiors, she said. Kwon said he didn’t know about the incident until Nathan spoke about it in public.

Nathan, who is half-Korean and started working there after a year teaching English in South Korea, left in 2019 and is now a case manager at Planned Parenthood.

“What I hope is that he can be an example,” Nathan said. “People who had national power and appeal to the media and the public – we had none of that.”


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