Three years ago, I wrote about labor violations in Genwa, a Koreantown barbecue restaurant where a plate with short ribs would cost $75.
The California labor commissioner’s office Found that the restaurant’s owners were systematically underpaying their employees and ordered the restaurant to repay more than $1.4 million in stolen wages.
And now, as my colleague Jeong Park reports, Genwa’s workers have created what may be the first union ever at a Korean barbecue restaurant. Genwa’s employees now make a minimum wage of $20 an hour and can be reimbursed for healthcare costs.
What’s happening at Genwa is happening across the country. Suhauna, my colleague at Starbucks, reported that four of the locations are in California. A group of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island voted to unionize. This is the first successful example of labor organizing at the online retailer giant.
It’s about time the American wage worker embraced the idea that their work is undervalued. This unprecedented wave of unionization shows that the social contract underpinning our economy is in need of renewal. Wage workers deserve and want more. Unions will ensure that essential workers are treated as if they are truly indispensable.
“Even good policy is not enough. The only thing standing between tyranny of a workplace and its workers is a union,”Jose Roberto Hernandez, chief staff at KIWA (the Koreatown organization that brought about labor reforms at Genwa), said this.
Pandemic lockdown conditions gave us a clear look at the dangers that day laborers, domestic employees and service workers face. face. Their work has become even more valuable as wage workers must leave their home to go to work.
Their compensation is still below poverty levels despite the possibility of a recession. Inflation, rising gas prices, and a runaway market for housing mean that minimum wage has fallen to a low point.
“People erroneously believe there’s a shortage of workers. There’s a shortage of good jobs,”Kent Wong is the director of UCLA Labor Center. “You have corporations making massive profits during pandemic conditions, and then you have so-called essential workers putting themselves at risk for a poverty wage.”
Southern California used to have many of these so-called “good jobs”. Manufacturing jobs lifted many families from poverty and helped to create a middle class here in Los Angeles. The only viable replacements are retail and service jobs.Wong advised those interested in manufacturing jobs.
Wong has witnessed waves of unionization among workers working in the fast-food, healthcare, cannabis, rideshare, and ride-share sectors.
Restaurant unions are very rare. According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey from 2021, about 10% of American workers are unionized. However for the food- and beverage industry, that number is less than 3%.
Because it is more difficult to unionize restaurants, the national hotel and restaurant workers union has tended to focus on hotels. Wong pointed out the difficulties in unionization due to rapid turnover, large immigrant workers, and the sheer number (or lack thereof) of employers.
And Genwa’s union is also unusual because it’s an example of an immigrant business owner and an immigrant work force agreeing to a labor contract.
Hernandez said that once the pandemic hit, Genwa’s workers and their employer realized that they had a shared goal of reopening the restaurant. Genwa’s owners, Jay and Kin Kwon, did not oppose the union and have attempted to make changes According to employee feedback.
Genwa is a transformative case “it just shows that it can be done,”Diep Tran, a chef, closed her restaurant Good Girl Dinette after a rent increase in 2014.
It was like running a restaurant. “fighting a losing battle to offer pay that is nowhere near living wages for this city,” Tran said.
Without the support of large investors, Tran paid her employees far more than the minimum wage and tried offering benefits. Tran refused cuts to wages, even as her rent was increased. When economic pressure is high, restaurants tend to cut labor and wages first, while still spending a lot on marketing and branding.
Tran stated that labor needs to be given a higher priority.
“This is a start,”She spoke. “I really want for some ways for employers to take a moment. Take a breath before you complain about staff and hiring and do some self-reflection about what you’ve done to help alleviate the problem.”