#soccerdiplomacy love notes

On August 10th, North Koreans will arrive in Seoul to participate in union-led exchanges in the interest of peace. This will include a soccer game and other events to build relationships and support the peace process. We’ve been asked to attend as members of the labor movement and we will be the first Americans to attend the game… ever.

We’re here in Seoul now and would love it folks would send a message of hope and support. It can be anything from a short ray of peace to a picture or even a video. I just ask that you make it brief. We’ll make sure that your support is received in the safest way possible by the Koreans here for the next few days.

Help me support two badass labor union women as they make history with our new friends in South Korea with a #soccerdiplomacy love note!

Resource List (July 2017 Trip)


This is a place for all the background information and links I have acquired in preparation for the trip.  Anything you need to know is going to be here.

Document concerning THAAD deployment in South Korea.​​

Bios of the delegation to South Korea.​​

Information about Korea’s Green Party.​​

Information about the organizations hosting our delegation. Includes a brief on Korean Trade Union organization.​​

Environmental Impact Assessment for THAAD installation.​​

This is the current position of the South Korean government on THAAD and some national security policy positions.

If I have more, I’ll post more here!

T2: Day 3


I went downstairs to the lobby at breakfast time and walked through the press conference and afternoon meeting for those involved.  When the group was assembled, we filed out into the street for a short walk to the park where we’d be meeting.


The press conference itself was pretty great.  We had representation from a variety of Korean unions in addition to our own wide-ranging spectrum of labor folks from back home, making our presence feel broader and more powerful in the face of the plaza we stood in.  I’ll let you see the press conference video for yourself.

The next meeting was where my mind was focused, however.  It was one I’d been researching and planning around for almost a year.  Our next meeting was with the KCTU Unification Committee.

By far the most memorable experience I had in 2017 was with my counterpart in the Unification Committee. This department is concerned with peace on the Korean Peninsula and other issues related to peace and justice.  Their mission is intense, with nuclear war looming on the political horizon.  They also want to see a united Korean Peninsula, a topic that is up for much debate (as we previously discussed.)  This meeting was the most difficult for me as it pushed on the boundaries of what agreements I could make on behalf of my organization. In that meeting we decided on a great many of the things that I would be working on for the following year. Everything from the creation of a Korea Task Force within our organization to the trip we took across the ocean in May of 2018 sprang forth from this relationship.

But this time was different.

Sungmin Park, my connection from the previous administration in KCTU, was replaced by Mikyung Eom when there was an election. At this point, Mikyung Eom and I had never met and our connections with the new administration were solely through staff. We didn’t know how well we’d be received and for good reason. Trump’s impact on the international landscape in terms of relationships made for an interesting situation for a lot of organizations. Strategically, looking at what few threads connect us to our governmental bodies at home, it’s clear that our impact on what can be moved went from slim to none with the 2016 elections. As labor organizations, we can petition our government all we want… but it is abundantly clear what this new presidential administration at home listens to and it certainly isn’t working people.

This issue makes situations like the one we find ourselves in with our friends in South Korea particularly sticky. Their labor movement can claim recent victories that included ousting a sitting president. Our movement, in contrast, has taken serious hits and has learned very few lessons. With that thought in mind, I wondered what we can really offer them in terms of our solidarity beyond some sympathy? Would they take us seriously?

So the morning before, we spent some time preparing. I made the call to put our newest and youngest union leaders up front, taking a fairly large risk. They’d be the ones to ask questions first and be shown as leading all discussion from our end, which runs afoul of cultural norms for both our organization as well as in Korean labor. Respect and deference to elders is so important in South Korea that even a year’s difference in age has significant impact in a relationship. Doing what I did – putting our young people in a position to have authority and power over the room – was intended to send a deeper message to our comrades that the future was more important to us than ever, but also demonstrate that we needed to be focused on changing our labor movement into one that can fight back against the fascist infection that has caused so much damage.

When the meeting finally happened, I was filled with a great deal of anxiety. But things moved forward quickly. The young folks in the room did a great job of figuring out how to get questions answered about the nature of South Korea’s labor struggles, dealing with our awful orange leader, and building relationships with the North Koreans.

A few important items came out of those discussions that are worth noting here.

1. When asked about their relationship to President Han and Secretary General Lee, both incarcerated at the time for their role in the General Strike in 2015, their response was worded differently than previous experiences. KCTU leadership expressed a kind of organizational shame around the continued imprisonment, identifying it as something that needed to be rectified right away.

2. When asked about relationships with political leaders, there was a pronounced pause before it was noted that the government hasn’t stopped being a hostile force. KCTU leadership then announced, to our astonishment, that they intended to go on general strike because “our government does not yet belong to us.”

Overall, the meetings went well and we walked away knowing that this was just the start of a new relationship.

Admittedly, the meaning behind the room setup and leadership of young people was murky for those involved on the Korean side. Later some would confide in me that it was unclear the reason behind decisions that we were making. Why weren’t more conventional leaders part of this delegation? Why were we so dead set on pushing for a diverse group?

My reply at that point was simple: if we want this to grow beyond who we normally see and bring a new internationalist spirit, we needed new people. Organizationally, we’d been working to build a new vessel for some time and now it was time to fill it with the new wine we’d been so waiting for.

T2:  Day 2


Someday I’ll be damn near blind, I think.  Or at least wearing a much stronger prescription, though neither of these things are desireable.  I like to imagine that my afro will be mostly graying if not completely gray.  I like to think that I’ll be myself, just ordering my steps with a little more rhythm and a little less pace.  I won’t be in a hurry and when that time comes, I’ll tell a story.  That story will go something like this.

In May of 2018, 20 of us trade union devotees boarded a bus early in the morning.  We were headed for Seongju County in South Korea, something like four or five hours away from our original destination.  Seongju, in addition to being a beautiful farming community, is a place of great struggle for a number of people.  If we were coming to South Korea, Seongju is where we needed to be.

When we visited, we definitely had a great time.  There’s video of us chanting and singing along but also contributing songs from our own American tradition.  Folks on the trip got to meet people from the village and share stories. But the real hit, the thing that folks still talk about, was experiencing the fresh produce – the strawberries especially.  A tray of beautiful ripe berries was passed between the group and I still get a big smile on my face from the looks of pleasure on their faces as they took a bite. Two delegates (April and Rebecca, I think) were looking at each other and the tray, wide-eyed, while April made the comment:


“Up until now, I think it is a very real possibility that I have never had a strawberry before.”

April was laughing as she said this, of course, but I held onto that comment and you should too.  We’ll return to it a bit later.

The fight against THAAD (terminal high altitude area defense) in Seongju has been widely covered by a variety of news sources over the years, so I don’t feel the need to go too far into details but I think it is important to review the basics.  The villagers of Seongju are deeply opposed to the placement of a high-altitude missile system and their reasons are just. The system, in addition to being a polluter with unknown side effects, isn’t really doing much to protect anyone despite being touted as protection against nuclear missile strikes.  In fact, its presence seems to have a negative effect on tensions. In an article about Seongju’s fight to remove THAAD, the mayor of the village said:

“We are worried that we are now a North Korean target,” said Seongju’s mayor, Lee Seok-joo. “But there is also a strong element of political theatre in all of this. To get the votes they need, the main candidates in the presidential election are pandering to conservative voters – and that means not outwardly opposing Thaad.”

When I first visited South Korea a year ago, I made a promise to the villagers of Seongju as well as myself that I would come back with more members of the labor movement so that they could see for themselves the strange yet familiar position that residents of the village find themselves in.  Political figures on multiple levels are playing with the lives and livelihoods of these residents, a fact that likely resonated with many of the people in our delegation. Be it the very real threat militarized police pose to the lives of Black folks while politicians play to their bases, or the struggle of immigrants to be seen as more than fuel for the economic machine, or the crude and bitter war conservative forces have decided to wage on women… the folks who decided to suspend their lives to fly 14+ hours to be here in this moment knew exactly what this kind of manipulation felt like.  

So when we arrived in Soseongri Town Hall, the display of solidarity that was decided upon by the delegation was different than what would normally be expected from a group of trade unionists from the United States.  The songs that they sang and the way that they sang them came from that place of strength despite opposition and political duplicity. Both adapted from the US Civil Rights tradition, their words were meant to be love notes to comrades they’d never met and the passion was clear.  If you watch the video, the chant “I Believe That We Will Win” was done with hothouse fervor that moved the crowd into participation despite a clear language barrier. During “Whose Side Are You On?” there was even an addition to two Korean freedom fighters, recognizing that struggles were truly linked.  

This was a different kind of solidarity that was being formed, as many of our delegates would later identify.  Previous to our journey, we’d had complex discussions about the nature of relationships between the US labor movement and South Korea.  It’s not that we couldn’t have a good relationship full of learning and support… it’s that without an acknowledgement of the effect our expanding military-industrial complex has on the rest of the world, it’s hard for other countries to truly take us seriously as movements for justice.  After all, THAAD didn’t fall from the sky mysteriously. It is a weapon system (one of many) that we sold to their country, machined and assembled right in the USA by workers that could have been members of a union. A challenge to this industrial complex, then, is more than just fighting the good fight.  It’s a step toward being a labor movement that feels complete and ready to heal the wounds it has been a part of inflicting as an active ally of American capitalism. That is real solidarity, built not just of interlocking promises to support one another in struggle but also of chances to see atonement as opportunity for growth.

So when it was all over and all the pictures had been taken, seeing the villagers offer part of their harvest to their new comrades seemed so much more than a friendly gesture.  Those strawberries symbolized a new chance to look at something that seemed so familiar to our movement – the notion of international solidarity – and maybe see it with new eyes.  April was right on so many different levels, it would appear. The looks on faces, Korean and American, as they enjoyed the proud work of the farmers in that small village said so much.  The flavor of movements that recognized the importance of confronting militarism was sweet and delicious to all those present, and just like the strawberries of Soseongri, left those new to its flavor wanting more opportunities to experience it.  Our delegates, still fresh from flights home, were quick to message me after the trip was over. Their messages, almost to a person?

“What’s next?  When can we go back?”

It seems the harvest, in more ways than one, was successful.  

Next:  Day 3… and it’s a biggun.


T2: Day 1 (evening on the ground)

Upon arrival, I was met with concern. Those who had attended the May Day rally had a pretty mixed experience. The description of what was supposed to happen during the rally was not what was expected and, as a result, the physical demands couldn’t be met by everyone. Some needed to take breaks that others in the group didn’t think would be politically advantageous or logistically realistic, the disconnections between them causing a lot of friction after a harrowing 48 hours where most did not sleep. Folks didn’t seem to want to pull a meeting together after they’d had some food and a chance to rest, so I settled in with staff and my connections to KCTU and KPTU, Wol-san and Mikyung.

Wol-san you probably know from my previous visit. She acted as liaison previously and, has time has gone on, we’ve become friendly. I really appreciate her fighting spirit, her connection and appreciation of family, and her quickness when it comes to assessing situations on the ground. She knows so much about her movement and, as a bonus, is an incredible person. With each visit, I get to know her just a little more and each time I’m excited about what I discover.

Mikyung Ryu was newer to me but as she is good friends with Wol-san I quickly grew to trust her as an asset to us. She was made International Director for KCTU in a previous administration and, having traveled the globe for her organization in a representational role she knows a lot about many labor movements all over the world and brings a sensibility that comes from experience. Mikyung was feeling her newness, however, because she was dealing with a brand-new administration. This matter was the first that arose in our conversation.

The previous year had seen a change in KCTU leadership. A brand new slate had been elected into power in Fall of 2017 over the union and they were a group of people I’d never met before. Wol-san and Mikyung were both very worried about this and in the beginning of our process I didn’t fully understand why. But as the vote was farther in my rear view – Winter turning to Spring – I noticed that my relationship with the KCTU leadership was essentially starting over from zero and that wasn’t a good thing for us. Both of my liaisons became fierce advocates for our visit and the importance of them knowing as much as they could about who, what and why became vitally important in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

I had real concerns by the time I got off the plane that our lateness would define who we were. I was assured that it was understood and that our presence at the May Day parade was appreciated, so it felt comfortable for us to talk more about logistics and what to expect.

Last year’s trip had the glittering light of international stardom on it and truth be told, I didn’t have that power with me this time. The people that I brought with me were the right people to have in the room as they were the leaders that are being looked to for the future of the labor movement, but they were more infamous than famous. Appreciating that was easy for me… I recruited and loved these people. But the new leadership didn’t really know the people I was traveling with at all. They were younger and not attached to title, bringing with them a base that KCTU hadn’t known in this way. Their presence was hard to explain and we talked about that, the three of us.

Half of the people in the group were from Mississippi? Why?

This group is almost completely people of color. Why?

This group is pretty young. Why?

We talked about the importance of their presence, the conditions that brought them, and how to prepare the delegates for these conversations. We also went over the next day, quite possibly the most important day. On May 2, we’d meet the villagers of Seongju and I was holding onto my seat in anticipation of it. I’d promised them that I’d return with workers who could see for themselves what had been wrought by American military presence. To be able to come through on that promise meant more than every other day.

I slept hard that night, likely from exhaustion (and a full rack of ribs from the Outback upstairs) but also from the deep anticipation I felt that evening of the magic that I knew would be present the following day.

Next day? Seongju!

T2: Day 1

I woke up at 4 AM in the Maritime Institute.  It was brutal and I hadn’t slept well.  I was terrified to relax, waking up every two hours afraid that I’d missed something.  When it was finally time and I was ready, I headed down to the lobby to meet Josh.  He was a lot more excited than I was and I probably didn’t look very good.  My experience with the airline until that point had been horrible so when we arrived at the airline (Air Canada,) waiting, I was unsurprised yet unhappy.  There was no one to meet us and the facility wasn’t ready to receive our massive group.  I was already sweating, but it just got worse.

Finally, after waiting for hours, we were checked in and things went relatively smoothly up until we arrived at the gate.  The team, led by a white woman who had lost her voice doing something (caught a cold?  attended a football game?  anyone’s guess…) generally was nice but not very helpful past a “by the book” interpretation of everything.

Once there, the same crew that checked us in was there to get us onto the flight.  I immmediately got worried when I asked if my group (with full video equipment and specific health and dietary needs) could board first and was dismissively told “no man zones!” as if I was trying to make their lives difficult.

Time passed.  Eventually it was time to board but we weren’t boarding.  No one was giving us details and no one had a clue about what was going on.  Eventually, White Woman With No Voice (W3NV) expressed the very real possibility that the mechanical failure that was causing a delay might cause a cancellation.  Unbeknownst to her, the airline mechanics issued the cancellation before they notified her and the passengers went ballistic as she was making an announcement stating uncertainty about the status of the plane.

It was at this point that I needed to make a call.  My faith in the airline had been shaky for some time.  I’d had numerous occasions where I’d been shown that I needed to worry and be vigilant, but this was the wrong time to feel this kind of panic.  19 other people were dependent on me making good decisions so that they could fulfill our goal of making it to South Korea.  But I tend toward prudence in situations where other people are involved because while I’m well aware of my capacity for risk, other people can’t be subject to that penchant for chicanery and skulduggery.  I needed to provide a way out for everyone on the trip, including those who weren’t locals.

Once I was confronted with the cancellation, I knew that procedure was to be rebooked.  I waited while they figured this out on their end as we were a group, choosing to let the staff do their job.  When W3NV returned, she was red faced and I just knew that she hadn’t been able to do a thing for us.  She proposed the solution that we instead fly on May 1, getting us in on May 2.  That, I told her, wasn’t workable.  Our itinerary told us that we were to be present for the May 1 parade, an event with importance in terms of international solidarity.  To not show up would slight our comrades and not do them any favors.  Her attitude suggested that we needed to take it and she was careful with her words.  She asked if that was acceptable and I told her no.  She threw her hands in the air and said there was nothing else.  Others suggested flights on other airlines and her response was that she checked and there weren’t options available despite being shown that there clearly were.  She stalked away, saying that we weren’t considering the problem of us being a group ticketed as a group.  That, she claimed, was the reason why things couldn’t be fixed.

It’s at this point that things got stickier.

We began a long-way-round engagement with airline customer service that even now perplexes me.  We would call, receive a call back, explain the situation precisely and receive a different response depending on each person contacted.  There was no way to have a consistent callback (at the moment) and customer service was almost ritualistic in its insistence that we were unable to be helped.  The working crew, flight now cancelled, didn’t want to help.  Their job finished, they wanted us to leave. I and others insisted that we hadn’t been helped and so we couldn’t have left.  Instead of trying to help make arrangements for us, offering us meal vouchers, or even asking if we were okay, they informed us that our baggage had been removed from the aircraft and we should depart to pick it up.  Then, after going around in circles with myself, Elandria, and others for almost an hour, tensions dramatically increased when I started to point out the obvious: we weren’t leaving and we weren’t satisfied.  Nothing had been done to help us.  Because our crew had been filming this whole ordeal (remember: protect the narrative above all else) the airline crew began threatening my cameraman and myself with arrest if they continued filming based upon their flawed understanding of privacy rights.  Jason -fearless in his filming – ended up not getting arrested that day, but we’d had enough.  I asked those that remained to excuse themselves to find their luggage and allow me to work with staff and Elandria to make the next pieces of the puzzle fit together.  We stayed to get through customer service and plot our next move.

Elandria wanted to keep trying despite all obstacles, but I was really concerned at that point.  Politically, I was feeling an obligation to communicate with my KCTU and KPTU comrades about our situation because I knew that the closer we got to May Day, the harder they would be to talk to.  Preparations were going fast and steady and I was clear in my sight of what that looked like in my relatively sedate Kentucky home.  I couldn’t imagine planning a massive May Day rally on the eve of possible peace for the first time in six decades, so I knew I needed to be quick about what I would say and I would need to know where we were headed.

Further, if Elandria couldn’t find a way through, I would need to do something with all these people.  Eventually, I’d either need to send them all home or get new flights to Korea.  Both of those options cost money so I’d need to move as much of it as we had into the right places.  Time was running short.

I got on the phone and started moving on those pieces while Elandria did the magic that Black women do in times of trouble. Elandria succeeded in getting nearly everyone on a flight that night out of BWI.  It was a harrowing story where she essentially did the work of an employee for an airline while on the phone with customer service.  There were helpful people in that tale who deserve so much credit, but Elandria is the keystone.

At multiple points of this process, I had to consider the very real possibility that everyone would need to be sent home.  The idea of taking something I had worked on for ten months out to the woodshed and putting down like a rabid dog was upsetting, but real and responsible.  That feeling lasted for the entire trip and even now I still feel it.

In the end, all but four of us made it to Korea on the last flight out that night.  Tiffany Flowers, Eleonore Wesserle, Terriyanna Bailey, and myself made it onto a plane the following day.  I received our itinerary in the air, adjusted down to the minute for our delayed arrival.

While we were in the air, our delegation continued on.  The May Day rally saw us represented with digntity and power.  We made it through our first day split, some of us asleep in the air.

Trip 2: Start Where You Started

It’s important to start where we started.

This process really did begin last fall and I really did start with a guy who is now running for office, Richard Becker.  All told, I went through perhaps 150 conversations with people from across the country.  My mandate, as folks may recall, was to make the trip alive and diverse so I did my best to confront that expectation.  I spent a lot of time doing one-on-one work with people, many times making intentional visits to where they lived and worked.  It was fun and exciting, but also troubling.

Labor unions in the United States have been actively engaged in a battle for their very souls since the infamous Janus case was filed on the Supreme Court level in 2017, though this has been going on a lot longer than that if we’re telling the truth. All Janus really did for the labor movement was truly crystallize the shot clock. Unions all over are springing into action, some nimble some rickety, doing their best to shore up their defenses to prepare themselves for what is to come.

So when I started having initial conversations in bars, conference rooms, and basements about this experience I had in 2017 I knew not to take the fast and excited “Yes that sounds great!” I would get immediately too seriously. I definitely responded positively and with excitement, but I imagined that conversations with union officials and supervisors weren’t going to go as well. For one thing, a lot of the people I was asking to come along were part of exciting campaigns that required talented staff. I’m fortunate to be in the number of people who can be described in this way and every one of the people I asked to come along had a similar issue. There was also the not-so-small matter of needing to essentially take off 9 or 10 days from work to travel and recover from such an experience, an obstacle that knocked out quite a few prospective delegates.

By the time Winter looked to Spring, my whiteboard was healthy with a list of solid names. February was where I called it and cut off all real additions (plans changed later, but that’s a story for another time.) I felt like my mandate had been met:

– 80 percent of those traveling with us would be people of color

– Over 60 percent of those traveling with us would be women of color

– For 90 percent of those traveling with us, this would be their first trip to Asia

Our delegate list was a veritable Murderer’s Row of social justice that I, to this day, can’t believe was possible:

Michael Leon Guerrero – Labor Network for Sustainability

Aaron Goggans – International Workers of the World

April Goggans – National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 250

Tiffany Flowers – United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400

Darrion Smith – Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE)

Yasemin Zahra – Montgomery County Educators Associaion/NEA

John Braxton – AFT (IBT previously)

DeBoRah Dickerson – Domestic Workers United

Michael Zweig – UUP

Elandria Williams – Beautiful Solutions (CWU, Highlander previously)

Jason Roe – Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 3

Eleonore Wesserle – Line Break Media (narrative team lead)

Rebecca Gorena – Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity

Jamil Johnson – Tougaloo College/United Students Against Sweatshops

Tia Patrick – Tougaloo College

Jonita S. Cooper – Tougaloo College

Terriyana Bailey – Tougaloo College

Detrice Roberts – Tougaloo College, point person for interns

Joshua Dedmond – US Labor Against the War (UAW, Fight for 15)

Reece Chenault – US Labor Against the War

We were looking to gather together April 28th in Baltimore at the Maritime Institute for some time with Juyeon Rhee, Organizer for Nodutdol (Korean diaspora organization that helped organize my original trip in 2017) to talk about Korea’s current political state, trade unionism, and learn a few Korean phrases. Then, on April 29th, we would cross the ocean.

Seems relatively simple looking at that paragraph… but nothing could be farther from the truth.

Trip 2:  #soulstoseoul

Welcome back!

I am honored to say that USLAW brought 19 trade unionists of all stripes to South Korea over May Day of 2018.  We did a lot, built lasting relationships, and changed the lives of workers in both the US and Korea forever.  It was an amazing experience.

This blog will take a different shape.  Our delegation was an amazing success, so this space will work to describe those events in a similar order to what was created before. Also, our delegates make take opportunities here and there to speak on the journey in May as well as their time on the road as we report back around the country.  I’ll do my best to keep us organized and focused, but feedback is always appreciated.  There is a lot to this story and we are aching to tell it.

Take care and watch for more soon!

Strategic Bourbon Decisions


Bourbon selection, I’ve learned, is a thing to be taken seriously in Kentucky.  Bourbon has been a huge business in the region since around the 19th Century.  The history creates a need to be careful about how you talk your selections.  It is still a fun experience that I relish with each visit to my local liquor store of choice (shout out to Total Wine in the Paddock Shops) but I must say that I no longer show up with no agenda.  The reality is that I now put a lot of thought into what I buy there.  So when the trip to SK moved far enough into my calendar where I needed to make strategic bourbon decisions, I must admit I was a little excited.

I chose to go in the early afternoon because I was hoping for some individual time with an expert (Total Wine is known to have some good ones in its employ) and have a little fun.  When I arrived, I was greeted by an older guy who could see that I was in the bourbon section with purpose.  He asked me what I was looking for and I explained where I was headed and why.  He grinned and said “yeah, you need some special stuff” and then got a slight, far off look in his eye.  That look, and our conversation, ended up being more important than I would realize.

He explained that export of American booze tends to run astronomically high in price (tariffs, etc.) so places like South Korea tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to bourbon.  Places like Japan buy it in huge quantities (Buffalo Trace went so far as to package it differently for them, allowing them to increase the price despite there being no discernible difference) and the Chinese are discovering it as well but it’s still amazingly expensive and likely a little hard to find.  This means that even stuff I think of as mixing bourbon now (Heaven Hill, Costco brand, etc.) is actually pretty hard to come by overseas.  So if I was going to go, I should take something that shows more than what is commercially available over there.  He said, at one point, “You should really show them what we’re capable of here in Kentucky.  So many flavors are on display here.”

I took his advice to heart, ultimately (after two bottles were confiscated/liberated at customs) bringing along a bottle of Blade and Bow (for the organizers I wanted to have a drink with) and Jefferson’s Ocean for KCTU leadership.  While the second is a great bourbon with a commercial gimmick of sorts, the first is a beautifully done high-quality small batch bourbon that isn’t available everywhere as of right now.  Now, looking at recruiting for a delegation in late Spring/early Summer 2018, once again I’m back to strategic decisions of a different kind.  But I’m keeping the analysis of my bourbon expert in the back of my mind as I look at who should join us.

The American labor movement is actually as full as the ocean we will travel across.  Traditional labor spaces like unions are getting smaller, but new formations emerge in places we sometimes don’t see.  From worker centers to cooperatives, we are also seeing new interest in expanding what it means to be a worker with power.  Friends in these organizations remind me all the time that they exist and can’t be counted out.  There’s also the little acknowledged fact that workers are organizing in places that aren’t the traditional labor strongholds (organize the South!) and want to be seen as the larger picture of struggle.

If I want to show South Korea the labor movement that I see, if I want them to taste all the flavors and see what we are really capable of, it better burst with all colors.  It’ll need to be queer and cross-class and body positive and cross-sector along with all the other things that people see when they see us through televisions and computer screens.  This group will need to learn together and develop relationships if they don’t already exist.  They’ll likely need to, at some point, find a way to present their work to others.

Remember:  our call is to fill this space with life.

A while after I returned from SK, I went into the store hoping to see the guy I worked with at Total Wine.  I did and I asked if he remembered my trip.  I ran down what happened briefly for him, pointing out that it was one of the few moments that didn’t need translation.  We laughed at the reaction together and after a few quiet moments he smiled.

“… I guess we showed them a bit of Kentucky.”

“Yep.  We did.”

If you’re a union member, leader, or staffperson that is interested in being a part of our Korea Delegation you can reach out to me at info@uslaboragainstwar.org for details. 

The Days After

A few weeks after the trip and I’m just at the end of recovery from a huge, life-altering trip.  It was a Monday at about 12 noon.  I had a lunch scheduled with a friend named Richard at a favorite spot known to have breakfast food available at lunch on a weekday.  The room is tight with lunchgoers, squeezing politely past each other on dark hardwood floors.  The taps are gleaming in the noonday light and I can already smell the cold cider.  I really like this place, which is good because at 12 noon I’m still groggy.  Jet-lag from a 15 hour trip around the world takes a long time to wear off.

We embrace as friends and sit down.  Conversation naturally starts with “So… uh, why were you in Korea… specifically?”  I tell the story, going through the salient details, and then we’re a little quiet as the food comes because I was hungry and it was delicious.

Fighting through a forkful of my favorite dish, I pause and he says

“So what do you do next?”

Upon my return, I was asked to report back to the Steering Committee of US Labor Against the War about the experience and what I think is next for us.

Politically, we’d been fairly clear prior to our visit what needed to happen.  Resolutions had been authored (available here) and statements had been made.  But for USLAW, we needed to figure out what we’d say and what we’d do next.

Let’s start with the short term.

Recognizing our role in the conversation as trade unionists concerned with confronting militarism, we know that the question of Korea is one that directly relates to the American addiction to militaristic foreign and economic policy.  Answers to that question won’t come easily, so we agreed to develop a Korea Task Force within USLAW to figure out what we want to say about our role in the Peninsula.

Medium-term was pretty clear, though definitely not easy.

By the second day, I was fairly certain that US Labor Against the War would be returning to South Korea.  What that looked like wouldn’t be clear until the end, when I was meeting with the Reunification committee.  There, I’d see that the delegation would need to be similar to the one that I had participated in.  I was in SK to do real work and so would whomever we’d bring along for a second delegation.  We’d need to center our work around three areas:  just transition that deals with both militarism and climate change, freeing SK labor political prisoners, and connecting NK, SK, and US workers in a way that allows everyone to be safe and valued.  This means that we’ll need a diverse group but also a fairly large one.  Because I’m an organizer that can only think in terms of organizer math, the plan is to find a group of 15-30 (leaders, staff, and rank-and-file) to go along for what stands to be an important mission across the ocean.  As it stands, the plan will likely be to organize the trip to coincide with May Day somehow as it provides an important opportunity for us to be in the same place as many union leaders from across the Peninsula. 

Long-term is less plan and more vision.  So much of it, at this moment, is dependent upon what is open and closed diplomatically that really all we can do is think of it as a dream we work toward.

That third area of work for the delegation (NK, SK, and US workers in the same place) won’t be the typical meeting in a board room.  I’d been asked specifically by the reunification committee in KCTU if meeting when NK and SK trade unionists were going to meet for a soccer game was a sound way to get us together, responding yes despite not knowing when or how this would take place.  So, our long-term plan is to help facilitate an American presence at a Korean trade unionist soccer game.  Again, this really isn’t about soccer or games.  Peace isn’t negotiated by governments, it is merely recognized by photographers capturing momentary displays of honor by those governments.  Politicians smile and take credit out front… while we, the people, do the work in the back rooms.

This is our work moving forward.  The controversy surrounding it will be tenacious.  People will continue to have a hard time understanding why and how we’re going to get it done.  This is an arena full of risk and the fight will be, at times, a slog.  But when we fight?  We win.

Richard and I continue to work through the last of our meals.  He’s a local labor organizer so we talk shop for a bit.  I ask him if he has ever traveled out of the country and he looks at me puzzled.  “Why?”

I take a deep breath and say:

“Well, there’s a soccer game I need help putting together.  It’s in Korea.  You interested?”

I’m going to continue this blog, talking about recruitment and what the conversations are like as I move around the country.  If our Korea Task Force comes out with anything in the form of a resolution or statement, I’ll be sure to put it up on the Resource List.