Chin Yol Yi still speaks in the present tense about a job he lost almost two weeks ago. He wears a bright white cap — so clean it‘s got to be laundered — emblazoned with the name of Super Assi market, which is his enemy, the source of his sadness and the location of his fight. Speaking through a translator, the middle-aged Yi, with the requisite pack of Marlboro’s in his pocket, tells me that he wears the cap because he wants to “send a message” about the struggle of co-workers whom, most likely, he will never work with again.
On Sunday, April 21, Yi was fired from his job as a sashimi cutter at Koreatown‘s largest grocery, but it would be a mistake to think that the nubbin of extra fish he sneaked to a regular customer — traditional practice in Korean markets — is what got him the boot. Yi is one of the most visible activists in the first large-scale unionizing effort in Koreatown, a figurehead in an emergent coalition of Latino and Korean workers that is a flash-forward look at what L.A.’s multiethnic, social-justice movements will look like in the coming decades. Which is to say polylingual, impressively broad and as fragmented as it is formidable.
Consistently denied 10-minute breaks, wage increases and promotions, the mixed LatinoKorean workforce at Assi decided to call a union vote with the help of the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates (KIWA), a scrappy, nonprofit legal advisory one block over from Assi. The 10-year-old KIWA is new to unionizing; its biggest success thus far has been a restaurant-workers association that provides wage-dispute information and micro-loans to more than 200 members. Koreatown itself is almost entirely unorganized, with small groceries too small to tackle, and big, ethnic groceries ignored by the granddaddy AFL-CIO. So the Assi workers opted to jump-start their own, the IWU — the Immigrant Workers Union.
As one of the leaders, Yi had his face printed on leaflets and wrote letters to employees in support of the union. These were bold moves, considering the Korean community is much smaller and more insular than the Latino community, says Paul Lee of KIWA, “and people can get blacklisted.” Nearly all of Assi‘s 150 employees voted in the March 9 election, which ended in a tie. KIWA has disputed the outcome, alleging that management cast some votes and that the company pressured employees. While the National Labor Relations Board reviews the case, the IWU has opted for more direct action.
Last Thursday, at a protest on the sidewalk outside the market, a Korean rep from KIWA read remarks in fluent Spanish.
Talk about the face of change. All the comments in English were translated twice, first into Korean and then Spanish. The ambitious translations were largely symbolic, since the only Assi workers who showed in force — to hold a banner (“If you want peace, work for justice”) and march on the manager’s office — were Latino. Kevin Kim, an attorney for the market, told reporters, “The company has complied with all labor laws.” Clustered around him, the protesters chanted: “Que queremos? Justicia!” Hard to know if any of the cluelessly smiling Korean shoppers knew what the shout was for. But they knew enough to use the IWU leaflets to shield their faces from the camera‘s eye.
The fact is, Latinos and Koreans at Assi aren’t the same kind of worker. The Latinos are predominantly male, with families back in Mexico or Central America, and have far more flexibility about where they work. The language-barrier between them and management makes it easier for them to organize, while the Koreans “find it hard to talk amongst themselves,” says KIWA‘s Lee. Practically speaking, Korean-only speakers like Yi can’t even find work outside Koreatown. With families and social networks knotted up in the neighborhood, there‘s a distinct “fear of getting terminated,” says Yi.
The Korean managers have been quick to exploit these differences. They’ve shaved the Latinos weekly work hours down to six a day, “which is nothing,” says one Assi kitchen worker who gave her name as Betty, and redistributed them to Korean employees. Betty has worked at Assi for two years, never been promoted, and still makes the $6.75 starting wage.
Meanwhile, Korean merchants receive the small benefits of ethnic allegiance. Salvador Acoña, who was fired in February for skipping work to visit a health clinic, worked 12- to 13-hour days at Assi for a year and never had a break. “Koreans might come out to have a cigarette, and the managers would say nothing,” he says. “No Latino could do that. They‘d insult you.”
Yi insists, however, that no one is getting treated well. “We get yelled at like we’re criminals,” says Yi, who adds that he never had a break in two years: “We want to work with dignity, without so much pressure.” Again, there‘s that present tense. It’s as if he never stopped working. But when I ask him what he plans next, he says, “I was thinking of going to Costco and Price Club. Maybe I‘ll see if they want to start up something with sashimi.”