First Starbucks, then Amazon and now, a Korean BBQ joint. Wage workers deserve better

Three years ago, I wrote about labor abuses at Genwa in Koreatown. A plate of shortribs was $75.

The California labor commissioner’s office Found that the restaurant’s owners were systematically underpaying their employees and ordered the restaurant to repay more than $1.4 million in stolen wages.

And now, as my colleague Jeong Park reports, Genwa’s workers have created what may be the first union ever at a Korean barbecue restaurant. Genwa’s employees now make a minimum wage of $20 an hour and can be reimbursed for healthcare costs.

What’s happening at Genwa is happening across the country. Suhauna Hussain, my colleague, reported that Starbucks stores are joining the union, with four in California. An Amazon Warehouse in Staten Island voted for unionization, marking the beginning of labor organizing success at the online retailer.

It’s about time the American wage worker embraced the idea that their work is undervalued. This unprecedented wave of unionization shows that our social contract is in need of renewal. Wage workers deserve and want more. Unions will ensure essential workers are treated like they’re truly indispensable.

“Even good policy is not enough. The only thing standing between tyranny of a workplace and its workers is a union,”Jose Roberto Hernandez is the chief of staff for KIWA (the Koreatown organisation that brought about labor reforms in Genwa), said.

The effects of pandemic lockdown have provided us with a stark reminder about the hazards that day workers, domestic workers, and service sector employees are facing. It has been clear that wage workers cannot work remotely, making their contribution even more important.

Their compensation is still below poverty level despite the possibility of a recession. Inflation, higher gas prices and an unstable housing market mean that minimum wages are less valuable than ever.

“People erroneously believe there’s a shortage of workers. There’s a shortage of good jobs,”Kent Wong, the UCLA Labor Center director. “You have corporations making massive profits during pandemic conditions, and then you have so-called essential workers putting themselves at risk for a poverty wage.”

Southern California was home to many good jobs. Many families were lifted out of poverty by manufacturing jobs, which helped to create the Los Angeles middle class. The only viable replacements are retail and service jobs.Wong advised those interested in manufacturing positions.

Wong witnessed waves of unionization by workers in the fast-food, healthcare, and cannabis industries.

Restaurant unions tend to be rare. According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, 10% of American workers are currently unionized. However, this number is only 3% for food and beverages industry workers.

Because it is more difficult for restaurants to join the union, national restaurant and hotel employees have been focusing on them. Wong pointed out the difficulties in unionization due to rapid turnover, large numbers of immigrant employees and a high number of employers.

And Genwa’s union is also unusual because it’s an example of an immigrant business owner and an immigrant work force agreeing to a labor contract.

Hernandez said that once the pandemic hit, Genwa’s workers and their employer realized that they had a shared goal of reopening the restaurant. Genwa’s owners, Jay and Kin Kwon, did not oppose the union and have attempted to make changes Based on employee feedback.

Genwa’s case has been transformative. “it just shows that it can be done,”Diep Tran is a former chef, who in 2014 closed Good Girl Dinette after experiencing a rise in rent.

Like managing a restaurant “fighting a losing battle to offer pay that is nowhere near living wages for this city,” Tran said.

Despite the support of big investors Tran was unable to pay her employees the minimum wage. She also tried to provide benefits. Tran did not reduce wages, even though their rents were increased. When economic pressure is high, restaurants tend to cut labor costs and reduce wages. However, they still spend a lot on marketing and branding.

Tran stated that labor needs to be given a greater priority.

“This is a start,”Sie said. “I really want for some ways for employers to take a moment. Take a breath before you complain about staff and hiring and do some self-reflection about what you’ve done to help alleviate the problem.”

First Starbucks, then Amazon and now, a Korean BBQ joint. Wage workers deserve better

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