FOR TWO YEARS, GABRIEL PEREZ GALVAN worked as a box boy most Friday nights at Super Assi, one of Koreatown's largest supermarkets. Last Friday, the 27-year-old Galvan joined more than 60 of his fellow box boys, sushi cutters and cashiers in a demonstration outside the store to protest August 1 suspensions, their latest setback in a one-year battle to become unionized.
"This situation is very difficult," says the Oaxacan-born Galvan, who, like his co-workers, wears a T-shirt with the name of his union -- Immigrant Workers Union -- on the front. "We are fighting for our rights as humans and as workers who really have worked hard for this market."
Last March, plagued by what they said was verbal abuse and shoving, and constantly denied lunch breaks and wage increases by the all-Korean management, the 150 Latino/Korean employees of Assi, with the help of the nonprofit legal-advisory group the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates (KIWA), called a union vote. The vote ended in a tie, with KIWA alleging that management cast some votes and pressured employees into voting against the union. The National Labor Relations Board is looking into it.
The latest battle came to a head in late June when Super Assi asked 60 (50 Latino and 10 Korean) of its 150 workers to rectify discrepancies between their W-2 forms and Social Security Administration records. Four employees were reinstated, but the others were suspended without pay when they did not provide valid numbers. "Ninety percent of those workers were union members," said Vy Nguyen, an organizer with KIWA. "The owners have used it as a way to suspend workers who were most interested in unionizing."
Bob Vogel, employment counsel for Super Assi, dismissed the protest as another pressure tactic. "Assi understands and respects the rights of the workers, but that is not going to cause Assi to change its position as to what it has to legally and prudently do with regard to this issue," he said. "These are good employees, and if and when they submit valid S.S. numbers, then they are welcome to come back to work for Assi."
Maximiliano Mariscal, president of the Immigrant Workers Union, says that store owners across the country have been using these letters from the Social Security Administration to union bust and to scare workers with the threat of a call from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "The letter says the employer should not take any action against the worker. Assi market is doing everything wrong."
Since January, the federal agency has sent out 800,000 letters to employers asking them to explain why names and numbers don't match. "We understand it is controversial and a hardship on workers who are undocumented and are getting fired by employers. Our purpose is to make sure that records are correct so that employees can get benefits," says agency spokeswoman Mariana Gitomer. She said the agency has no enforcement authority and does not require employers to get rid of workers without valid numbers.
The workers have tried, without success, to get the Korean consul general to intervene. Said Gina Lee, a consulate spokeswoman, "It is not a consul matter. Legally the Social Security number is supposed to match. It is up to the market and the employees."
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