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Riots Are Invoked in Union Drive

Labor: Organizers targeting a Koreatown market say inequities of '92 remain. Store rejects group's complaints.

April 26, 2002|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Latino workers in a nasty labor dispute with a major Koreatown supermarket tried to gain leverage Thursday by exploiting the upcoming 10th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots.

The workers said management of the bustling Assi market is perpetuating the kind of economic inequality that many social activists have blamed for widespread looting that accompanied the riots.

"We only want fair wages and equal treatment for our work," said Aurelio Ramirez, 33, one of about two dozen employees and supporters who pushed aside security guards and marched inside the market proclaiming, "Justicia! Justicia!"

All wore red and yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the name of their incipient organization, the independent Immigrant Workers Union.

The protesters were soon ushered out of the store without incident.

But activists said a catalog of charges--including allegations of discrimination against Latinos, violation of wage laws, denying workers a 10-minute break and illegally dismissing one employee--would be filed later with federal and state labor regulators.

Meeting the phalanx of protesters and journalists inside the market was Kevin S. Kim, an attorney representing the market. He called the complaints groundless.

"The company has complied with all the labor laws, regulations and public policies," Kim told reporters assembled amid shelves of fresh vegetables and sacks of rice imported from Korea.

Organizing the action was the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, or KIWA, a nonprofit group funded by private foundations that has worked on issues arising from one of Southern California's most crucial labor-management relationships: Korean and Korean American employers and their large work force of Latino immigrants.

Korean entrepreneurs, often families, employ low-wage Latino hands at a wide range of job sites, including mom-and-pop grocery stores, garment factories and restaurants. Few of these workers have union representation. KIWA, with a staff of Korean and Spanish speakers, has sought to fill the void by representing workers in labor-management disputes arising in Koreatown, where many Latino immigrants live and work.

The labor activists acknowledged using the riot anniversary as a tactic to pressure the market owners to improve conditions for workers, many of whom earn little more than the California minimum wage of $6.75 an hour. Employees at unionized supermarkets routinely earn double that amount or more.

A March vote asking Assi's 150 or so workers if they wanted to unionize resulted in a virtual tie--labeled a victory by management, which successfully fought back the organization effort after an acrimonious battle. Owners of other Koreatown markets and businesses watched the conflict closely, fearing a spreading current of unionization and higher labor costs.

Both sides are challenging disputed votes in the March election before federal labor officials.

On Thursday, union advocates handed out pamphlets titled, "10 Years After '92's Civil Unrest--Economic Disparity in Koreatown."

In fact, Assi--part of a larger group of affiliated markets with outlets in Orange County and on the East Coast--has only been at the Koreatown site on West 8th Street site for four years. Kim, the management attorney, dismissed as spurious the asserted link between the labor dispute and the riots.

Union activists say the underlying issues of economic disparities and ethnic tensions roiling the market were also part of the combustible mix that exploded on the streets 10 years ago.

Koreatown was a major target of rioters and looters, some angered by the earlier fatal shooting of a black girl by a Korean shop-owner who said she feared for her life and received a light sentence.

"We're here to say that how Korean employers treat their Latino workers is race relations," said Paul Lee, a KIWA official who is coordinating the unionization drive.

"If you treat them well, and you pay them well, then you're helping race relations."

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