I live in the Venice/Culver area of Los Angeles. Since Aloha Grocery and Royal Market have closed near my house in the last few years, its been harder to find specialty foods and organic products. Sure theres the small health food store two blocks from my house, the outdoor farmers market and Trader Joes, but I love going to the Korean market.
Usually I pick up fresh garlic spinach, kim bap rolls (Korean sushi), aloe vera drinks or rice beverages for lunch on my way to work in downtown LA. For a special treat, I love to get those delicious cantaloupe-flavored melon bars.
But recently, I have learned more about the Market Workers Justice Campaign in Koreatown. For the past year and a half, workers at Assi Supermarket in Koreatown have been organizing for better wages and working conditions. Last Fall, the Immigrant Workers Union (IWU) was created by Assi workers in order to protect themselves from harassment from Assi management. Many Assi workers have reported retaliation and discriminatory treatment for supporting the union.
Assi Supermarket has about 100 employees, half Latino, and half Korean. Latino Assi workers filed employment discrimination charges in January citing poorer working conditions for Latinos than the Korean workers. In April, Assi fired a pro union worker, Mr. Chin Yol Yi for his support of the union. IWU began holding regular pickets to protest these unfair labor practices shortly after.
I joined my husband, Tony Osumi, on a few of these pickets to support the workers. Tony was teaching third grade at Wilton Place School in Koreatown just a few blocks away. His students met with workers when they visited the Korean Immigrants Workers Advocates (KIWA) and learned about the workers situation.
As a result, the students wrote poems to show support to the workers. They turned their collection of poems into door hangers and distributed over 500 apartments in Koreatown. Here is a sample of some of their poetry:
Teamwork can help you by Carlos Martinez
Assi workers using teamwork
Fighting for the union
Not treated right
Not paid right
Hang on Assi workers
Keep fighting for your rights
Assi workers by James Choi
Assi workers brave and strong.
Get together with one heart.
Fighting for what they always want.
Fighting until the very end.
But on August 1st, 60 workers were placed on "nondisciplinary indefinite suspension." Assi says that the reason for the suspension was because the Social Security Administration has notified them that the names did not match the social security files. But this was just an excuse to get rid of pro-union workers.
In response, IWU and the community has launched a boycott of Assi Supermarket. Over 80 organizations have endorsed the Market Workers Justice campaign. Workers have been on the picket line from noon to 8pm every day.
This week, as the country commemorates the one year passing since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and people wonder what they can do to make a difference in the world, I have learned from these third graders. These kids prove that anyone, no matter what their age, can support workers, right in their own neighborhood. You dont have to be a union organizer, a rich philanthropist or even an adult, in order to find compassion for people who are being treated unfairly.
You can help support the workers as they picket Assi Market at 3525 West 8th Street, between Oxford and Serrano in Koreatown. Also, a KIWA Workers Justice Fund has been established to help workers cover rent and emergency expenses for the next months and allow them to continue with their struggle for justice. Checks can be made payable to the KIWA Workers Justice Fund and sent to KIWA at 3476 W. 8th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90005.
Because third graders say, "Boycott Assi!"
Jennifer "Emiko" Kuida is a Sansei who writes from Los Angeles. She and her husband Tony wrote the original "101 Ways to Tell Youre Japanese American." Opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo. For more info, contact KIWA at (213) 738-9050, the Immigrant Workers Union at (213) 252-8468 or see the website at www.boycottassi.com. ©2002.
Originally published in The Rafu Shimpo, September 12, 2002.