LA Korean Restaurant Workers Just Won a Pathbreaking Union Contract

After a hard-fought, five-year organizing campaign, the largely immigrant workforce at Genwa, a Korean BBQ chain in Los Angeles, has won a first contract — a first-of-its-kind agreement in an almost entirely nonunion sector.

After five years of organizing, workers at Genwa have their first union contract. (Google)

Workers at Genwa, a Korean BBQ chain in the Los Angeles area, have ratified a first contract. The three-year collective bargaining agreement between owners Jin Won Kwon and Jay B. Kwon and the workers’ independent union, the California Retail and Restaurant Workers Union (CRRWU), is the first at a privately owned Korean restaurant in the United States, and covers the company’s three locations in downtown Los Angeles, Mid-Wilshire, and Beverly Hills.

The organizing began five years ago in response to systematic wage theft. In 2017, Genwa’s workers reached out to the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA) for assistance in stopping the violations. Korean front-of-house workers initiated the conversations, and they were soon joined by the company’s back-of-house Latino workers, who raised concerns about hazardous and disrespectful conditions in the restaurants’ kitchens. KIWA, which was founded in 1992 and has a particular focus on the retail and restaurant industry that flourishes in Koreatown, estimates that Los Angeles’s wage workers lose $1.4 billion to wage theft per year.

Genwa’s 325 workers — servers, dishwashers, cooks — were largely Korean, Mexican, and Central American, and the wage and hour violations were rampant. According to a 2010 UCLA survey, 38 percent of Latino workers and 36 percent of foreign-born workers experience wage theft, compared with 10.3 percent of white respondents. Genwa’s workers were routinely made to go off the clock during their shifts, shorted on overtime pay, and denied legally required breaks. KIWA helped the workers file claims with the state and, in 2019, the California Labor Commissioner cited Genwa $2.1 million for the violations, finding that nearly half of the company’s workers were not paid the required minimum hourly wage.

“By that time, most, and maybe all, of the workers that had filed the claims had already left the company,” says José-Roberto Hernández, president of the CRRWU and the organizing director of KIWA. “So we started engaging in organizing with the new workforce.”

Hernández describes that period as “very contentious.” The company filed lawsuits against the workers, and against Hernández himself: one such suit concerned an action on Halloween of 2019, during which workers showed up to trick or treat at the home of Genwa’s owner, reading a prepared statement and requesting a meeting to resolve the workplace disputes.

The workers held informational picket lines, filed unfair labor practice charges, and organized delegations with community members ranging from local religious leaders to high school students. Eventually, Genwa ownership stopped fighting and agreed to form a committee with workers to address particular workplace issues, such as sexual harassment and the distribution of tips. By this point, the pandemic had shuttered the restaurants; when they reopened, the workforce was reduced to roughly sixty workers. Those remaining decided it was time to unionize to prevent future violations.

“We convinced the company to not oppose the union or we’d go back to the streets,” explains Hernández. When the union cards were counted at a public event in 2021, with Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center, selected as an independent arbitrator verifying the validity of the count, the vote went overwhelmingly for CRRWU.

Less than a year later, the workers now have a contract, ratified by 98 percent of eligible workers. The agreement includes the rehiring of Genwa workers who were on staff as of February 2020, seniority rights, pay increases for kitchen staff, a retirement plan, a fair tip-distribution system, a process for conflict resolution, and a stipend and reimbursement for health care, among other benefits.

“I’m proud of the work we did to win this union, and I’m proud that now sexual harassment and gender diversity training will be part of the experience of workers at Genwa,” said Rebecca Nathan, a former hostess and bartender at Genwa who experienced harassment and tip theft and participated in the establishment of the CRRWU. “In a place like Los Angeles, this is so important. We’re one of the food capitals of the country. How we treat our workers really reflects on the way that we feel as a society about humans and value.”

“Despite our good intentions, there are workers who feel they were not treated fairly while working at Genwa in the past, and we offer our sincere apologies to them,” said Genwa owner Jay B. Kwon in a statement about the agreement. “We now look forward to the opportunity to work together with the CRRWU to model dignity, fairness, respect, quality jobs, and an excellent standard of service and food. The collective bargaining agreement signed by Genwa and the CRRWU establishes consistent and healthy standards to do just that, and allows us to grow together with our employees with a guarantee that both Genwa jobs and service will be world class. I hope it’s a model for restaurants across the industry.”

The CRRWU faced incredibly steep odds in organizing a small business in a high-turnover industry as an independent union with a largely immigrant workforce during the pandemic. Yet the union prevailed.

“Do not give up,” says Hernández when asked what lessons workers elsewhere might take from CRRWU’s unlikely victory. “Labor rights are for everybody, independent from your legal status in the United States. Do not be afraid to fight, do not let up, do not accept any violations or any harassment, and do not be pitted against other workers.”

Retail and food service remain largely nonunion sectors in the United States, but between the Starbucks union drive and fledgling efforts at other major corporations, that may be starting to change. With the win at Genwa, workers in Los Angeles now have a local model of winning not only unionization but a first contract from which to draw inspiration. With roughly 550 restaurants just in Koreatown, there’s plenty more work to be done.