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Hotel Labor Pact: Room for Everyone : Labor: Fired Latino union workers get back their jobs by successfully enlisting the aid of Asian community activists to lobby the South Korean owners of the Wilshire Plaza Hotel.

November 01, 1992|JAKE DOHERTY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Soon after the Koreana Co. of South Korea bought the former Hyatt Wilshire Hotel last year, 150 union-represented workers were fired in what federal labor officials called an attempt to bust their union.

The union representing the mostly Latino workers was primed to fight back, but the problem was, "How can we keep this from being Korean-bashing?" said Jennifer Skurnik, campaign coordinator for the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union Local 11.

So the union adopted a novel strategy: enlisting the help of Asian community activists to lobby the hotel, renamed the Wilshire Plaza Hotel, on behalf of the workers. And after 10 months of a boycott and protests--including pickets and a sit-in at the Korean Consulate--the hotel reached a contract agreement with the union last month.

"We showed that people can come together to resolve very serious differences and both sides came away in a stronger position to contribute to the rebuilding of Los Angeles," said Maria Elena Durazo, Local 11's president.

Christopher Burrows, the hotel's labor attorney, denied that the Wilshire Plaza management was influenced by the lobbying efforts. But he said that hotel President Y. S. Kim concluded that the hotel was "spending too much time on this." Burrows said Kim told him: " 'Let's look for a way in which everyone benefits. With the agreement, we look good and the union looks good.' "

When the union workers learned in December, 1991, that they wouldn't be rehired, they were at first stunned and then defiant.

In planning a response, the union concluded that it could not win the workers' jobs back without support from the local Korean-American community, which was expected to be a major source of business for the hotel.

The union relied on its contacts with networks like the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, established last year to build bridges between between labor and the community. With more Filipino- and Chinese-American workers entering the hotel industry, the labor alliance was looking to expand its ties with unions like Local 11, said Kent Wong, president of the alliance.

The union also turned for support to the Asian Pacific Planning Council, a coalition of human service agencies, and labor and community groups. That group looked at the issue as one of fairness in the workplace, immigrants' rights and protection for low-wage workers, said Deborah Ching, president of the planning council.

"As people of color, we are all affected by the same issues," Ching said of the planning council's support for Local 11. "We need to come together and not make scapegoats of each other."

During the early stages of the campaign, the planning council, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and representatives from about 20 other Asian Pacific American, African-American and Latino groups signed a letter to Kim, the hotel's president, warning that the firing of the workers "could exacerbate already existing racial tensions."

In addition, 11 former employees picketed in front of the hotel five days a week for 10 months.

Police Chief Willie L. Williams, state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), City Councilmen Mike Hernandez and Michael Woo and several community groups also refused to cross the picket line.

Burrows said the boycott had little effect on the hotel, but union organizers called it a key part of their campaign.

Roy Hong, director of Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, played a vital role as the union's liaison with the Korean-American community, said Noel Rodriguez, a Local 11 organizer.

"Roy helped bridge the cultural and linguistic barriers, organized support for the boycott and persuaded Korean-American leaders to talk with the hotel management," Rodriguez said.

Angela Oh, an attorney and activist, also urged the management to consider that the firing of Latino workers by a South Korean-owned hotel could have repercussions for the Korean-American community in the tense ethnic climate surrounding the April-May riots.

"What helped bring people together (in support of the union) was the fundamental question of fairness involved," Oh said. "The question is: How are we going to be treating workers in this city?"

The union filed several complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled in July that the hotel "deliberately and selectively refused to hire former employees of the Hyatt Wilshire . . . to avoid its obligations to recognize the union as the exclusive collective bargaining representative."

Koreana officials denied the board's charges, but an Oct. 21 hearing on the complaint was canceled after the two sides reached a contract settlement that morning.

Once Koreana agreed to negotiate with the union two weeks ago, the two sides quickly reached an agreement, which will take effect Dec. 1 and continue through May, 1994.

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