Averting a divisive battle just as thousands of visitors are arriving for the World Cup soccer tournament, management of a major Koreatown hotel has unexpectedly agreed to a new four-year contract with unionized workers.
Labor leaders called last week's contract signing at the Radisson Wilshire Plaza a major victory in their aggressive push to organize low-wage, mostly Latino immigrant hotel employees throughout the Los Angeles area. Workers had accused owners of attempting to break the union and reduce wages and benefits.
"This was an extremely important victory for us," said Maria Elena Durazo, president of Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union. "All we're looking for is some respect for the workers and for the union's position. . . . If we hadn't won, we would have been allowing standards that are already too low to deteriorate further."
Many had feared that the anticipated battle centering on the predominantly Latino work force could signify a repeat of a racially charged 1992 labor dispute. The dispute resulted in almost a year of picketing outside the same facility after it was bought by the Seoul-based Koreana chain.
But activists said the accord illustrated how employers could avoid such confrontations.
"The implications here could be far-reaching in terms of educating corporate citizens who are coming into this community from other countries that don't have a history of labor unions," said Angela Oh, an attorney who is active in Korean American and other community issues.
In a novel show of unity, workers say, Korean American restaurant employees at the hotel joined with Latino staffers in forming a cross-cultural front to face management. That development heartened union strategists who were grappling with ways to organize immigrant work forces that are often fragmented along ethnic lines.
The Wilshire Plaza's estimated 130 workers, whose previous contract was to expire this week, approved the new pact unanimously Friday.
Although management preferred a shorter contract, the owners agreed to the four-year accord in an effort to promote harmony and get on with business, said Wayne Williams, the hotel's asset manager.
"We were not interested in having a war," said Williams, who participated in the negotiations and denied any intention to break the union.
Local 11 activists had placed top priority on retaining a favorable contract at the Wilshire Plaza. The 12-story, 397-room hotel--the largest in the Koreatown/Mid-Wilshire area--is one of only a dozen or so major Los Angeles-area hotels with unionized work forces.
Having launched a high-profile organizing campaign throughout the region earlier this year, Local 11 strategists decided their movement could not afford a setback at a facility that was already unionized.
"We were ready to throw everything we had at this," said Jennifer Skurnik, staff director for Local 11.
Anticipating a lengthy struggle, the union had prepared a major public relations campaign, which was to include a multiethnic march through Koreatown this week and other highly visible actions during the World Cup. Some Asian American groups had vowed to lend their support.
"Not all Koreans or Korean Americans in the community were going to sit by and let hotel management go about its previous anti-union practices," said Paul Lee, an organizer for the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, a community group supportive of the hotel employees.
A letter-writing initiative started last month targeted hotel management and Hang Kyung Kim, the South Korean consul general in Los Angeles. (The hotel's parent chain is owned by the prominent Bang family, who are also chief proprietors of Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's largest daily newspaper.)
"Los Angeles does not want another bitter, divisive conflict at a time when what our city most needs is reconciliation and economic development," the union wrote to supporters.
The mid-priced hotel (formerly known as the Wilshire Hyatt and Wilshire Koreana) is a social anchor in the Koreatown/Mid-Wilshire area, the site of many banquets, business meetings and other events.
In accepting the union's demands, management essentially agreed to a four-year extension of workers' existing contract. The pact is modeled after a citywide agreement that covers about 6,000 unionized hotel workers.
The contract includes free medical and dental benefits, job security protections and a $1.45-per-hour raise for non-tipped employees during the life of the contract.
Currently, wages for non-tipped employees at the Wilshire Plaza range from $6.70 an hour for room attendants to $11 for cooks. At comparable non-union hotels, labor leaders say, such salaries range from about $5 to $8 an hour.
The Wilshire Plaza's acrimonious recent labor history has given the facility a special symbolic importance to labor leaders.
When the hotel was still part of the Hyatt chain, Local 11 fought for more than two years in a bitter but ultimately successful campaign to win a contract. Shortly after signing a pact with the union, however, Hyatt sold the Wilshire facility to Koreana.
Upon assuming control in late 1991, the new owners promptly hired a new work force, voiding the union contract and leaving about 150 Hyatt employees jobless; some had worked there for 20 years.