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Otani

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LARRY KANTER Staff Reporter

The bruising labor battle over the New Otani Hotel & Gardens is claiming an unintended victim the small businesses of Little Tokyo.

Merchants in the area say that union pickets, who descend upon the neighborhood each Wednesday and Friday, frighten away their intended customers, most of whom are Japanese tourists.

On days when there are demonstrations, sales can plunge as much as 30 percent at Yokohama Okadaya, a large gift shop located just outside the New Otani’s back doors, says Tetsuo Watanabe, the shop’s general manager.

“The demonstrations bother our business,” Watanabe says. “The customers run away. I wish it to be over as soon as possible.”

Towards that end, the Little Tokyo Business Association along with more than 20 other Japanese American business, social service and community groups has called upon hotel management and Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union to settle their bitter, 4-year-old dispute with a secret-ballot election.

“Let them decide (the union issue) so all of us can get back to our normal lives,” says Frances K. Hashimoto, the association’s president and president of the nearby Mikawaya Bakery-Confectionery.

Hashimoto says the Little Tokyo merchants are not taking sides in the dispute they simply want the matter resolved.

But the groups essentially have embraced the position held by New Otani management, which has long called for the matter to be decided by secret-ballot election.

Local 11, on the other hand, is pushing for a “card check” election, in which workers who want to unionize would sign membership authorization cards. Under that process, a union becomes entitled to represent workers if more than 50 percent of the workers sign cards.

Local 11 organizer Jennifer Skurnick denied that Little Tokyo merchants are suffering as a result of the labor dispute.

She says the union has made a special effort to reach out to local business owners, adding that most merchants support the union’s efforts to organize the hotel’s 280 housekeepers, cooks, waitresses and other service employees.

“We are not attacking the whole community,” Skurnick says. “If the workers (at the New Otani) are treated better, the whole area will be better off.”

The battle shows no signs of abating, and in fact, is likely to heat up in coming weeks, when AFL-CIO President John Sweeney visits Japan to press the union’s case directly to the hotel’s owner, giant construction conglomerate Kajima Corp.

That’s cause for concern among many Little Tokyo merchants, whose fortunes are linked to those of the 434-room New Otani, the largest hotel in the neighborhood and a favorite with Japanese tourists.

“This area depends on tourists,” says Kazunori Nakajima, manager of Kiyono Fashions, a clothing store in Weller Court, just outside the New Otani. “Now, tourists are afraid to come to the whole area not just to the New Otani.”

Kazunori admitted his woes are not entirely the result of the labor dispute. Little Tokyo has been slow to emerge from the recession, he says. A recent economic downturn in Japan also has taken a toll.

The lingering dispute at the New Otani, merchants say, simply adds to their catalogue of woes.

Local 11 launched an international boycott of the hotel in January 1996. As part of that effort, the union contacted Japanese tour operators, warning them away from the New Otani.

One union flier, which was translated into Japanese, warned that “there are regular picket lines in front of the hotel five days or more a week, which bother the hotel’s guests from Japan and elsewhere.”

Little Tokyo merchants say the union’s efforts have tarred the entire area as a dangerous hotbed of labor strife, rather than a quiet and clean strip of shops and restaurants an image local merchants have been working to promote since the 1992 riots.

“To the Japanese, perception is everything,” says Hashimoto. “We want to save our reputation.”

Like nearly every aspect of the New Otani fight, the effectiveness of the boycott is a matter of dispute.

Union officials say the effort has been successful, particularly in terms of deterring downtown workers from patronizing the hotel and its Azalia restaurant.

New Otani management admitted that the boycott caused a slight drop in business immediately after it was launched. But business is now back to normal, says hotel spokesman Charles Ecker.

In backing management’s call for a secret-ballot election, the local Japanese American groups have broken ranks with their traditional political allies the Latino, Chinese, religious and other activist groups that have sided with Local 11.

Kitty Sankey, president of the downtown L.A. chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, says it was not an easy position to take.

But she says there is something more important at stake than political alliances.

“I’ve watched as business in Little Tokyo has gone down,” Sankey says. “The business people in Little Tokyo have worked hard to encourage people to come back. Obviously, the New Otani (dispute) puts the area in a bad light.”

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