Labor Organizing Through the Media

Featured image:  Korean Immigrant Workers Alliance members and partners stand in from of Los Angeles City hall in a 2014 march against wage theft. Source: Brady Collins, “The Workers United! Multi-Ethnic Solidarity in L.A.’s Koreatown.” Hyphen Magazine. Last updated January 28, 2015.

In April 1992, immigration was rising and the Rodney King Riots erupted in response to an all white jury finding four police officers not guilty of brutalizing Rodney King, a young Black man. The Riots damaged local businesses, many Korean owned. Around the same time, news of a Korean shopkeeper shooting a Black teenage girl, Latasha Harlins, became public.

Later that year, a diverse group of labor organizers won a partial victory over South Korean hotel owners from the Koreana Company. The owners had fired 150 unionized Latino hotel workers at the Wilshire Plaza Hotel the year before. To bridge linguistic and cultural barriers and avoid “Korean-bashing,” Latinx organizers had reached out to Korean American labor organizations, resulting in ten months of boycotting, pickets, and sit-ins. This campaign resisted state sanctioned division between immigrant laborers, within a xenophobic climate that reflects that of today. It displays how media coverage can be used to frame social justice solidarity work in strategic ways.

Los Angeles Times: “Hotel Labor Pact: Room for Everyone Labor: Fired Latino Union Workers Get Back their Jobs by Successfully Enlisting the Aid of Asian Community Activists to Lobby the South Korean Owners of the Wilshire Plaza Hotel.”

…the union adopted a novel strategy: enlisting the help of Asian community activists to lobby the hotel, renamed the Wilshire Plaza Hotel, on behalf of the workers. And after 10 months of a boycott and protests-including pickets and a sit-in at the Korean Consulate- the hotel reached a contract agreement with the union last month.

During the early stages of the campaign, the planning council, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and representatives from about 20 other Asian Pacific American, African-American and Latino groups signed a letter to Kim, the hotel’s president, warning that the firing of the workers ‘could exacerbate already existing racial tensions.’

When the dispute began, many union members said that they didn’t distinguish at first between Asians, just as many people don’t differentiate among people from Latin-American countries, said Yolanda Constancia, a fired housekeeper who walked the picket line for 10 months. But the workers realized they would fail if they dwelt on racial issues.”

From the most prominent new source in Los Angeles and intended for a predominantly white audience, this article outlines the hotel solidarity action as a chance to “rebuild” race relations. It highlights the wide range of groups involved, including Local 11, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Asian Pacific Planning Council, Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, and Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

La Opinión: “Termina Ardua Disputa Laboral Entre Empleados y Un Hotel Angelino.”

Original text:

“Sin vencedores ni vencidos” terminó la disputa laboral entre los empleados sindicalizados del Hotel Wilshire Plaza (antes Hyatt) y los propietarios de origen coreano del mismo, cuyos representantes anunciaron ayer la celebración de un contrato colectivo satisfactorio para ambas partes.

En representación de los empresarios hoteleros, Christopher Burrows elogió lo que dio en llamar “la madurez” de las partes en conflicto, sin la cual, agregó, el arreglo no habría sido posible. Recalcó a continuación que el convenio alcanzado podría servir de modelo para la industria en otras partes.

Sin embargo, empleados como Yolanda Constancia, quien se desempeñara como encargada de limpieza cuando el Hyatt estaba en la esquina de Wilshire y Normandie, verá sus ingresos levemente recortados de acuerdo con el nuevo arreglo.”

English translation:

The labor dispute ended “without winners or losers” between unionized workers of the Hotel Wilshire Plaza (known as the Hyatt before) and the Korean owners of the hotel, whose representatives announced yesterday the celebration of a satisfactory agreement for all parties involved.

In representing the hotel owners, Christopher Burrows praised what he called “the maturity” of the parties in the conflict, without which, he added, the arrangement would not have been possible. He stressed that the agreement reached could serve as a model for others in the industries.

However, employees like Yolanda Constancia, who worked as a cleaner when the Hyatt was on the corner of Wilshire and Normandie, will see their wages slightly cut as a result of the new agreement.

Written for a Spanish language audience, this article does not mention the solidarity work and instead announces the end of the campaign as “sin vencedores ni vencidos” (without winners or losers). More somber than the Los Angeles Times article, this emphasizes how the struggle for labor rights is ongoing and arduous.

Further Reading

“Hotel Oks 4 Year Contract on Eve of World Cup: Labor Union had been ready to stage multiethnic protests at the Radisson Wilshire Plaza, the site of bitter dispute in 1992.” Los Angeles Times, June 9, 1994:

Vargas, João H. Costa. “The Los Angeles Times’ Coverage of the 1992 Rebellion: Still Burning Matters of Race and Justice.” Ethnicities 4, no. 2 (2004): 209-36.

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