Los Angeles Times
Union on menu at barbecue chain
Organizing of workers at Korean restaurants could be model for others
At the Korean barbecue restaurant Genwa, a plate of beef short ribs, or galbi, costs around $75.
Kylie Jenner has been spotted there having lunch.
But workers say that until a year or two ago, they were not paid for all the hours they put in, were not given all the tips they earned and were not permitted to take rest breaks.
Last year, they formed a union. And last month, they signed a contract that included minimum pay of at least $20 an hour and reimbursement for healthcare costs, as well as seniority rights.
Genwa, which has two locations in Los Angeles and one in Beverly Hills, is the first Korean barbecue restaurant in the country to unionize, according to organizers.
The 50 or so Genwa employees join an expanding union movement across the country, from hundreds of Starbucks stores to an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island.
Many workers are demanding better treatment as low-wage earners are having a tough time paying their bills and the gap be
tween rich and poor continues to widen.
Labor experts and Asian American community leaders say Genwa can serve as a model for organizing immigrant workers, who may be unaware of their rights, afraid to speak up or hampered by language and cultural barriers.
Encouraged by the victory at Genwa, organizers are trying to convince workers at other Korean-owned businesses, including Hannam Chain supermarkets, that forming a union is in their best interests.
In Koreatown, coalescing support for a union can be particularly challenging. Many businesses are staffed with Asian and Latino workers who speak various native languages and are sometimes treated differently by the owners.
But “when workers could actually show that it could be done, it encourages other workers to take action,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.
When Jenny Kim started working at Genwa in MidWilshire in February 2016, the restaurant felt like a family. Like her, the owners and many of her co-workers were Korean immigrants.
The smell of grilling meat — galbi and chadolbagi, or thinly sliced beef brisket — reminded her of the home she had left behind in South Korea.
But as she toiled as a server, setting down an array of banchan — side dishes — from kimchi to fish cakes and flipping the meat on grills at customers’ tables, she began to realize that she was being shorted on wages and tips.
With fewer hours logged on her paycheck than she had actually worked, she was essentially making less than minimum wage. After hours on her feet balancing plates of meat, she wasn’t given rest breaks.
She calculated that she was owed nearly $50,000 in wages and penalties.
When she brought up the issue, her manager said to keep quiet about it, Kim said.
Genwa has denied the allegations of Kim and other workers, attributing any issues to mistakes in paperwork.
A survey that was released last year of low-wage Asian and Latino workers in California, including restaurant employees, found that a majority were paid $15 an hour or less. Nearly 20% made less than $12 an hour — the state’s minimum wage for small employers in 2020, at the time the survey was conducted.
Sometimes, immigrant employers can put pressure on fellow immigrants to settle disputes internally, experts said.
“They have this co-ethnic employee-employer relationship that often undermines the workers’ ability to express their grievances and report abuses,” said Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center.
Steven Chung, one of Genwa’s longest-serving employees, was a floor manager when more and more workers started coming to him about their paychecks being short.
The number of hours recorded on his own check was fewer than what he had worked, he said.
When he complained to Jeannie Kwon, the owner who hired him, she told him to go on a vacation, he said.
Kwon soon fired him, Chung said.
Chung and Kim were among the Genwa workers who reached out to the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance in late 2017. They weren’t trying to form a union — they just wanted to be paid for their work.
KIWA has a long history of advocating for workers in Koreatown. Executive Director Alexandra Suh keeps a photo of workers picketing in the late ’90s in front of the well-known Korean barbecue restaurant Chosun Galbee.
In the early 2000s, KIWA secured living-wage agreements at many Koreatown grocery stores. But those pacts have since fizzled, and KIWA had never successfully organized a union.
Sometimes, owners try to divide workers along ethnic lines, as happened during an unsuccessful unionizing drive by KIWA at Assi Market in 2002.
As at many Koreanowned restaurants, Korean immigrants at Genwa often have worked as servers and waiters, while Latinos are lower-paid cooks and dishwashers.
Turnover at restaurants can be another impediment to organizing. By 2019, when José-Roberto Hernández became director of organizing at KIWA, many workers in the initial Genwa group, including Chung and Kim, had left their jobs at the restaurant.
Newer workers had reservations about KIWA and forming a union. Some felt that the organizers’ tactics, such as picketing in front of the restaurants and the owner’s house, were too aggressive.
Just as the organizing drive was gathering momentum, the pandemic hit, forcing the restaurant to temporarily close and lay off almost all its workers.
Meanwhile, in March 2020, the California Labor Commissioner’s Office levied a $2.1-million fine against Genwa for wage theft and labor law violations involving more than 300 workers.
A payroll audit showed that they were regularly made to work off the clock and were not provided rest or meal breaks. Nearly half were not paid minimum wage, and more than half were denied overtime pay, the audit found.
Among the union organizers were former Genwa workers. After the restaurant reopened, they helped convince enough of their former colleagues — even those who were satisfied with their jobs — that the union would give workers a voice. Workers also debated the merits of the union with one another, sometimes in a mixture of Spanish and Korean.
Last July, a strong majority of them submitted union authorization cards. The owners voluntarily recognized the union, known as the California Retail and Restaurant Worker Union.
Genwa owner Jay B. Kwon apologized to any workers “who feel they were not treated fairly” in the past.
“We now look forward to the opportunity to work together with the California Retail and Restaurant Worker Union to model dignity, fairness, respect, quality jobs and an excellent standard of service and food,” Kwon said in a statement released after he and the union ratified a first contract last month. “I hope it’s a model for restaurants across the industry.”
In a separate statement sent to Korean-language media and The Times, Kwon said Genwa settled the fine with the state for “a lesser amount.”
Kwon said the pandemic has changed how he runs his restaurants and made it more important to retain employees and provide a stable work environment. The union can help with the company’s long-term goals, he said.
Yongho Kim owns Arado Japanese Cuisine in Koreatown and is president of the Korean American Food Industry Assn., which represents restaurant owners.
Kim said Genwa may not be typical of most restaurants, given its large size and upscale clientele. He does not foresee unions taking hold at many smaller momand-pop restaurants in Koreatown but acknowledges that some owners need to be educated about labor laws.
Martorell of the Thai Community Development Center said that organizing workers in Asian American communities remains a challenge.
But at Hannam Chain, the organizing drive may be gaining strength, with employees recently presenting a petition to the company to discuss working conditions, according to Hernandez of KIWA.
“The workers at the Hannam Chain LA made it one of the most successful and well-recognized Korean grocery stores in the United States,” state Sen. María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) wrote in a letter to the owners in March. “They deserve more.”
Rebecca Nathan, who helped organize her former colleagues after she left Genwa, was pleased by clauses in the new contract requiring workers and managers to take sexual harassment training.
Nathan, 28, said that while she was a bartender at the restaurant, her manager outed her for being queer. That led to a barrage of sexually harassing comments from co-workers, with little pushback or discipline from superiors, she said. Kwon said he was not aware of the incident until Nathan spoke about it in public.
Nathan, who is half Korean and started working at Genwa after a year of teaching English in South Korea, left in 2019 and is now a case manager at Planned Parenthood.
“What I hope from it is that it can be an example,” Nathan said. “People who had the national power and an appeal to the media and public — we didn’t have any of that.”