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LITTLE TOKYO : Yaohan Workers Picket Over Wages

January 23, 1994|IRIS YOKOI

Joined by members of other labor unions, employees of Yaohan markets picketed the local store to protest the Japanese supermarket company's refusal to grant periodic wage increases to workers at its nine U.S. stores.

Carrying protest signs written in Japanese and English, several dozen workers picketed in front of the store at 333 S. Alameda St., where the headquarters of Yaohan U.S.A. Corp. are also located, for about two hours Jan. 14. The demonstrators distributed bilingual flyers to customers and chanted, "Contract now!"

The Yaohan grocery employees, who are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, were joined by representatives from Justice for Janitors, the AFL-CIO and Local 11 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees' Union, as well as by members of local teachers and garment workers unions.

Yaohan U.S.A. is part of Yaohan Group International, a worldwide company with department stores and supermarkets in Hong Kong, Great Britain, Japan and the United States. The supermarkets feature Asian foods and groceries.

The 400 to 500 workers at Yaohan U.S.A.'s six Southern California stores and its San Jose, Chicago and New Jersey sites have been without a contract since their three-year pact expired in September, according to United Food and Commercial Workers officials.

The bone of contention has been the company's adherence to a merit-raise plan. The union contends such a system encourages favoritism and discrimination by management, breeding discontent and low morale.

In fact, union members claim the company has granted raises to management officials, most of whom are Japanese, while denying them to hard-working and loyal produce workers, janitors and other grocery workers, many of whom are of other ethnicities.

"We want to work out a reasonable wage-increase table and make sure everyone gets an increase periodically," said Art Takei, spokesman for the Los Angeles chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, a national organization of union members of Asian ancestry.

In a Dec. 28 letter to Yaohan U.S.A. administrators, Ed Miyakawa, president of the alliance's local chapter, wrote: "We are concerned with the public perceptions of Yaohan Co. You are a company owned by a Japanese corporation. As such, you are obligated to live up to our rules of enlightened labor relations where your employees are treated in a fair and just manner."

Akio Kawai, an administrator for Yaohan U.S.A., contended the company's international negotiator in late December presented to national union leaders a modified compromise proposal that stopped short of offering across-the-board raises but included "several things we felt the company could afford regarding wages."

"We feel we're pretty close to reaching agreement," Kawai said. "It's disappointing that the local unions, not knowing what's really on the table, are doing this. As a company, we value our employees. They're our No. 1 resource. We're constantly improving our benefits and wages."

But Andrea Zinder, director of research, collective bargaining and education for local 770 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, vowed to step up publicity efforts--which she said could lead to boycotts or employee walkouts--until the issue is settled. "After six months of negotiations with this company, they still refuse to recognize simple union demands," she said.

Other Asian American labor leaders also chastised Yaohan at the recent rally.

Said Susan Minato, an organizer with the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union: "As a person of Japanese ancestry, it makes me ashamed, and as a believer in the Los Angeles community, it really (ticks) me off."

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