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.
If I have more, I’ll post more here!
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.
If I have more, I’ll post more here!
This page will get exciting pretty soon. I apologize for being away from it but I needed to do what I promised and find a team for our 2018 labor delegation and, if I do say so myself, we’ve got a damn good one.
Talk to you in a couple of weeks.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
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.
No myth, only truth today.
Flying home at whatever time it was, I felt my phone vibrate. The readout screen showed we were over Alaska and, after some fumbling, I was able to pull my phone out of my pocket. I’d received a text from a friend and while I was reading it I heard a pinging noise in the front of the aircraft. I ignored it only to hear another and another in succession. In a wave of computer generated beeps, bloops and whistles, we received notification that a missile test had been performed by North Korea. If it had been successful, the missile was apparently capable of reaching the area of Alaska we were flying over. Those of us that were awake had the normal variety of shocked reactions to the news that at any given moment, Alaska could be hit with a nuclear blast.. and we were basically in Alaska.
For a moment, I thought of my family and friends. I thought about all the people in Alaska I would never meet that would be (mercifully) obliterated by the blast immediately. I thought about the countless lives (human and non-human) that are forever impacted by the radioactive fallout. Those minutes seemed to stretch for hours.
Then I remembered the place I’d just left hours before. South Koreans have probably felt this flavor of fear (or something similar) for a long time. But eventually it comes back around to what you’re prepared to do to make life livable for yourself and those you love. Fear, eventually, is replaced by a deep desire to prevent disaster and you recognize your role. Maybe you become a more focused parent. Maybe you change careers to better suit your talents. Maybe you get in the streets for peace. Maybe you join a union. Maybe you just live your life and try to be whatever kind of good person you can be.
But you don’t stop living your life. The experience certainly will shape you, personally and culturally, but you recognize that you’re still alive.
I wrote myself a note. It just says “Remember to center whatever we do next around life.”
This is a long one. I apologize for nothing.
This was our last day, so we actually did a bit of summing up with our coalition hosts and said some goodbyes. It was hard to leave but I felt hopeful. We had a briefing with our coalition allies at our usual place in the union hall, but I won’t really detail that here. Instead, I think it is important to talk about learnings and things that seem important to take away from the experience. I also want to talk about the recommendations I made to our leadership based on what I saw in SK, but that will likely come next week.
Because I’m apparently in love with small prime numbers, I think there are three “big idea” lessons that have proved sticky enough to remain in my memory.
1. If we’re going to be a Left force in the West, we need to get comfortable with the idea of palatable foreign policy (and diplomacy!) really quickly.
Before I left, I noticed just how few voices there were on foreign policy that cared about my intended audience. Most of the people that write or talk have a tone that one could call… academic. There tends to be a lot of name-dropping and seven syllable words. The articles tend to be really long and the social media arguments remind one not-so-faintly of crotchety hecklers Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show. Don’t get me wrong: I get that this is a serious issue that people study, building entire academic careers around it. Political education is a deep requirement to engage the subject and our folks should read more about other places and peoples. We should know our neighbors so much more than we do.
But we don’t and frustration won’t make it go away.
In fact, we know so little about one another that we can’t talk about other places without confusion. There are scores of studies showing just how small the number of countries the average American has visited, how few languages we speak, and how when we look at a map it may as well just read “here lies dragons” every place other than North America. I’d list them but it doesn’t matter. We ALL know just how much we don’t know about everyone else as Americans.
What we don’t see and don’t know is how we appear to other countries, unfortunately.
That plays out in situations like the one I found myself in entering South Korea. I could see that there were many parts of our history and international relationships that were clear for folks in Seongju, for example, who were proud farmers who probably didn’t spend the majority of the day reading The Economist or Foreign Policy but were aware of the impact of what we do in the United States. Their lived experience was produced by our policy decisions (and budget line items) so familiarity became a part of survival. What proves to be missing in this picture, framed by our action and inaction, is our dissenting voices. It is true that we put out statements through organizations and make online petitions saying we oppose X policy of horribleness… but past that, we move on with our lives and hope that someone somewhere will do something. Our online petitions aren’t felt or seen. There is no real impact from a statement of opposition that will be followed up with nothing but guilt and arguments on Facebook.
The end result is a gulf where on one side sit a select few who argue (with knowledge and passion, both good things) while the majority of people watch from across the room and avoid the conversation because it looks and sounds “too complex.” I know this response well having spent the past two years listening to union members talk about this problem in great detail. This often means a deafening silence and leads folks like the residents of Seongju to think that we’re happy with (or don’t care) about what our warmongering means for their lives.
A lot of people bristle when I use the words “diplomacy” or “foreign policy,” especially my hard Left homies who hear oppression when I say it. My usage inspires a lot of explanations of settler-colonialism, dreams of borderlessness, and I respect and hear their analysis. But I also know that the words really just mean how we relate to other people who live someplace else. I’m fine with replacing it with another set of words and/or phrases, but we need to be something like diplomats because we need to relate to other people in a meaningful and thoughtful way while acknowledging that we have desires of our own as human beings. I really think the thing we have now, the State Department, is part of that solution. Having a State Department has often been a vehicle for all kinds of utter bullshit and horror, but I’m not really convinced that the solution is to demolish it. I think that whatever we decide we want to be, we need to recognize and deal with the fact that we exist on a planet with other people and, like it or not, we’re all over here having done some awful shit to be what (and who) we are. That means having an organized presence that we devote resources toward. Call it what you want, but we need someplace that allows us to come to terms with what we’ve done.
The current budget of the State Department is 37 billion dollars for 2018. Imagine what 37 billion dollars of solidarity looks like. I don’t know about you but that sounds pretty great to me.
This leads to my next point.
2. Peace begins with us, not our government, and peace doesn’t mean an absence of conflict. In fact, if we’re doing it right there is going to be some turmoil.
There are many pictures of the South Korea trip where people are flashing peace signs and I’m not one of them. At one point, with the students, everyone was doing it except for me. It’s not that I don’t desire a world free of warfare, I’m just against the common conception of what it means to be peaceful and the peace sign is part of that for me and my lived experience. There’s this awful, blanched pablum of political meal that we keep getting fed where somehow all we need is love or silence or something to produce this fantastic new world… and it makes me so angry. Peace has been swallowed by this as well, engulfed in an idea where all we need is flowers and a pizza party and we’ll magically all be (fake) sister and brother that never fight. I think part of it is the natural revisionism that comes with the passage of time but I also think it is completely in line with the political needs of a ruling class that wants us meek and afraid of being in conflict with each other.
There’s an ugly truth that exists in the space of conflict, but also tremendous power. Sometimes, we don’t agree as people and societies and it is something we must deal with. It’s not always convenient or clean, in fact many times it is dirty and inconsistent. People and societies make mistakes, say the wrong thing, and react from a place of irrationality. But when you care about the other person or society in the conflict, you stay at the table and work it out. You apologize for the stupid thing you said or did. You work on your mistakes and treat them like things that can be fixed. North and South Korea, as complex as their relationship is, have engaged each other as labor movements even in the tumultuous “now,” with war games and nuclear standoffs. Our time together with SK trade unionists demonstrated that it is complex, but not something they can ever afford to walk away from. When you share a peninsula and want a future where you are united again, the only way out is through.
More than ever, in a time where we’re arguing about what it means to be non-violent, we need to be clear in the recognition that our fear of conflict is what is leading us farther and farther down the path of totalitarianism, not guns or bombs or Klansmen. Defeating white supremacy or any other problem requires engaging it directly and being honest with each other, and that is not clean work. It takes recognition, true, but it also takes a sharp (and often painful) reckoning. That reckoning, like a flooding river, doesn’t need your permission to be what it is. All we can do is prepare and rely on community to get through it. As Frederick Douglass said, those who want progress without struggle desire lightning without thunder.
I’d also add that while my fantasy State Department will fulfill all of my hopes and dreams, it certainly won’t without me… or us. Our work as US Labor Against the War to meet with our counterparts in the labor movement in South Korea is an essential part of creating space for agreements to be reached. Sometimes that will mean taking great risks and doing things that are not in our comfort zone or require resources we can’t quite see on the horizon. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. It just means that we need to do the dirty and inconsistent work. It isn’t just the right thing, it’s what we owe. Quoting Douglass again, we don’t always get what we pay for but we sure as Hell pay for what we get.
Speaking of payment…
3. The movement that ends our abusive relationship with militarism must be intergenerational but also powerfully rooted in a future full of tenacious hope, power and dignity.
I work every day for a labor movement, specifically for an organization built to engage the labor movement, but my work is for my son. He will grow up to be a combination of effort and care that I hopefully provide with my wife, so I take time with him to teach but also to learn. Since he is 3 years old, I do my (imperfect) best to be aware of his needs in terms of agency. The more he grows, the more independent he wants to be. He’ll get into trouble in that independence and he’ll call for me. In those moments I’ll need to decide how I’m going to show up. Will I try to fix every problem or will I make an effort to help him learn how to solve the problems himself? In that engagement, what resources and tools will I show up with? What person will I be?
Being a part of this delegation made me think a lot about that relationship and tension. The labor movement is just like the peace movement in the US in that it struggles to understand how to relate to a newer generation. There are big, juicy fights in labor spaces about getting young people into the room and there’s some sparse effort to attract a younger generation to struggles against militarism. I’m approaching 37, so I’m less a part of the “youth” and more a part of whatever this phase of my life is now and I’ve been exploring this idea through the lens of my past engagement as a young person. I try to remember what friendly spaces looked like and I recall that usually what I really needed was presence but also power and respect. I wanted to see my own reflection (of sorts) and for that person to be seen as part of the table. The folks who weren’t like me in terms of age needed to be present and generous, but also smart about engaging me. The relationship required care that didn’t need to be perfect, it just needed to be present and authentic.
In an honest space, we need to be aware of what is real. Looking at who we are as movements, do we show care? Are we consistent in our belief in the power and agency of the young people we work with? If we’re not, are we honest about where we are in that consistency (or inconsistency?) I think we’d find, if we were honest, that mostly we’re about tokenism and fake power relationships. We put a minimal amount of effort into real engagement and are furious when it (surprise!) doesn’t produce lasting effects or burns us (and our target) out.
Look at the Movement for Black Lives, wildly successful yet avoided and/or tokenized even as it quietly revolutionizes everything from organizational development to electoral politics.
Look at the youth-led climate justice movement (at this point too grand to name) that made climate change widely known to more than nerds and middle school students doing a unit on global warming despite the pushback from larger, whiter, older organizations.
KCTU leadership was pretty clear with me that the problem was present in their movement as well, so they’re not being held up here as a glittering and perfect example of what to do. But what I did see was that the power of young people was present and linked to the struggle because they were a respected part of the fight. You can’t tokenize someone that has had to realize their power independent of your acceptance of it and being a literal part of millions of people facing down their own government and hordes of police will definitely change your perception of what you are capable of.
I’ll close with a story about grapes.
My wife and I took a trip to Spain some years ago and traveled to the wine region. On a tour of a beautiful winery, we were walking and listening to a presentation about the grapes being grown in the field we were walking through. One of the tourists noticed that there was little covering of the grapes and he wondered out loud about exposure to the elements. The tour guide acknowledged the question and admitted that they don’t on purpose. The reason, he explained, was that a protected grape that hasn’t been through anything lacks the flavor necessary for good wine. The frost of winter, the heat of summer, rough wind… all of it shapes the flavor profile. My wife, at this point, was translating for me (the tour was totally in Spanish) but as the guide started talking about this particular thing I think I told her to stop (or at least stopped listening to it.) The reason was that even with my rough Spanish comprehension I could totally understand what he was saying. You see, the guide was talking about struggle. His language was insistent and descriptive, so much so that I could feel what he was saying even without getting all of it. The meaning, the idea that struggle is inherent in good grapes, felt universal. I’ll never forget the look on his face, even now.
Whatever we do next, it’ll need to happen while acknowledging the future as something we serve instead of a finite thing that we can control. At best we shape what moves forward and grows without us and it is an honor to be a hand that does that shaping, even as our time as gardeners remains brief. We need to respect that honor and put resources behind it. We need to treat young people with respect, understanding that while they are smarter than us (it’s true, stop denying it,) we know more things than they do. Our experiences have value but without care, they will end up unused or worse, opposed because we were careless. I prefer the alternative: a movement built on solidarity and struggle but also care. Just like the wine, we want our movements full of flavor and life.
We’re not done. More next week!
The last meeting of the day with KCTU was with the Unification Department. 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 would be the most difficult for me as it pushed on the boundaries of what agreements I could make on behalf of my organization.
Sungmin Park, chair of the committee, started us off with some history and it was pretty damning. As he outlined all the ways that the United States had royally screwed over both North and South Korea, I admittedly felt the room rising in temperature. He noted that most of the responsibility for the division of the country lies with the United States. He talked about the San Francisco treaty that, in addition to splitting the country in two, pardons the Japanese for all crimes toward Koreans. He also mentioned a national security law that permanently places North Korea as an enemy, limiting the ability for South Koreans to engage them.
There also is the larger, deeper problem of devastation through sanctions in North Korea. For those of us in the West, we see sanctions as the result of threats but (not surprisingly) make no connection between the escalation and our own behavior. In the past year, I actually think this has changed somewhat. One result of 45’s (Donald Trump) presidency has been a removal of the veil on political processes that actually have gone on long before he ever took office. The main difference has been, in my opinion, that 45 is without diplomatic language that can obscure the violent truth of our foreign policy. A magnificent dullard and brute, he lays his intentions clear with every speech and doesn’t hide his violence with smooth talk. Now, with such a villain in office, NK looks more reasonable by comparison. It’s easier for people to see that the aggressor can be (and often truly is) us. With that veil removed, it’s easier to see things like the difference between Kim-Jong and his people. But also, it’s easier to see why war games can be provocative when the US president is a notorious provocateur. SK, it could be said, has been waiting for us to recognize this for some time and was wondering when we’d join the conversation rationally.
The conversation turned to a back-and-forth with some Q and A. I was asked about 45, specifically whether he was under the influence of neoconservatives. I then had the heartbreaking task of describing the cabal of super-villains our president had assembled to a group of people who probably really didn’t want to know just how bizarre and problematic our Executive Branch had become. I let them know that neoconservatives, while certainly present in the House and Senate, weren’t the ones mainly advising the president. I did my best to illustrate the strange dark alliance made between “men’s rights” true believers, hardened white supremacists, paper tigers, and hucksters that struggle to get the attention of a thin-skinned man in a role he is unprepared for. Just thinking about that conversation even now makes me sad.
We then began talking about North Korea, specifically the lack of involvement of the American labor movement in conversations between trade union organizations. It was again expressed that our opinions about North Korea seemed strange given that as a labor movement we had so few interactions with them. I was encouraged to let labor leadership in the US know that the best course of action could be to engage NK labor in conversation somehow. I asked a question that had been on my mind for some time: how do they know that the NK unions they are meeting with are legitimate? How can we be sure we’re not just meeting with a labor organization made up of nothing but spies?
The committee chair replied that KCTU has had this relationship with North Korea because they worked at it. They’d been in communication since 1999 and had spent time together enough for him to recognize that the people he was meeting with were workers. If they were workers, he said, then we should respect them as our comrades and talk to them. I asked how this was possible and he told me that their meetings are (amazingly) centered around a soccer match. When possible, the North Koreans and South Koreans get together and play a game and around that discussions are had. I was happy to hear this, particularly as pressure was again placed on us to come to the proverbial table as Americans and talk to the North Korean labor movement. It was there that I did something I was, up until that point, not thinking would be possible.
I agreed to work hard to make a conversation happen between our labor movements, specifically to get American labor to the next soccer game as long as we can nail down details. There were audible gasps and a look of astonishment on some faces. I cautioned that these details were going to take work and that I really hadn’t committed to more than talking, but I think folks knew better by that point. I’d basically started us down a long road toward American, South Korean, and North Korean trade unionists being in the same room together.
We’ll do Day 5 somewhat differently. It’ll be a kind of wrap-up.
Many developments in the past week, so I’ll apologize with the caveat that I’m really happy with how things went. We’ll end the travelogue strong this week and, next week, we’ll start off with next steps. That’s right… everybody gets a little homework.
My meeting with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unionists started a little late but, by that point, it was to be expected with our crew. We arrived for our sit down in the now familiar KCTU hall, this time in a conference room.
From left to right, we were greeted by:
Sungmin Park, Chair of the KCTU Unification Committee
Sangjin Lee, KCTU Vice President
Jongjin Choi, KCTU Acting President
Youngju Lee, KCTU General Secretary (due to her role in the general strike, she is actually on a form of house arrest. Rather than allow them to break the union by jailing so much of leadership, Lee remains in the union hall all the time and can never set foot outside.)
Kungja Kim, KCTU Vice President
I was clear with my comrades on the trip that during these meetings I was going to be quite greedy and a little rude. I needed to make the most of my time, ensuring that I would spend it talking about issue areas that I knew would matter to labor unions back home, so I started with my own questions.
Since I know Korean trade unions aren’t exactly a subject people study in school these days, I’ll do you the solid I hadn’t done my fellow delegates and give you a little background.
KCTU really came to be in the mid-1990s, but its origins come from the Democratization movement that basically came to an astonishing head in the summer of 1987. Prior to that, South Korea was ruled by a military dictatorship. To overcome it, there needed to be a wide coalition across all social movements. Folks came together (forgive me as I’m really truncating this story) and after a long fight, there were elections that summer. From this movement, many groups emerged including trade union organizations. Between July and September of that same year, over 1000 labor unions were organized.
But there are some key differences that are worth considering.
First, this is a young confederacy and they are still in the streets. The government is not their friend – even the guy they helped get elected recently – and there’s a considerable amount of challenge to the labor organization. This means that their level of fight back is wicked strong and they spend a lot of time mobilizing membership against larger social movement issues. While many imagine that to be an organizer’s paradise, there are disadvantages to constantly putting thousands in the streets for months or years at a time.
Second, in South Korea the election cycle is fairly different. Once you file your certification cards, if you’ve got a majority that’s the proverbial ball game. Further, two workers make a union and you don’t need to get recognition from the employer. Unions make it known they are present early enough that it isn’t exactly a surprise but it is imaginable that this is an entirely different environment than organizing in the United States. A lot of the unions that form are yellow (fake, fugazi, counterfeit) as a result but this can also mean huge successes.
After brief introductions, we got right into it.
For me, the biggest issue we’re dealing with is the age problem in the United States. Union membership is on the decline so statistically membership data shows an aging base. Within USLAW it is a pronounced problem that has required an incredible amount of energy to confront. I was curious about how their organization was confronting this issue. They informed me that they had the same problem. Their approach, however, differed from ours in that they instead have focused on being a voice on issues that affect young people even if they don’t affect their base. On the affiliated union level, each union has its own program that the KCTU supports strategically.
My next questions were about KCTU’s current political prisoners, the former president and acting president. I was wondering why, if they got this new guy elected, why he didn’t let them out of jail. The unsurprising response was that the Moon administration, even with its claims to be the fulfillment of the Candlelight Uprising, is limited in its power to come through on its promises. To protect its ability to negotiate with conservatives in government, they sacrifice their alignment with a powerful labor movement. This meant that the special pardons they thought were coming would likely not arrive without significant pressure.
One of my last questions felt like one of the easiest. I asked about the idea of social movement unionism and wondered if this was something that they would subscribe to and, if so, how does that play out in South Korea? The question was said, and after translation there were looks exchanged between the leaders. One of the vice presidents finally spoke, the response astonishing Wol-San (our translator, guide, and best buddy.)
“They said they don’t identify with that term. To be honest, I’m really surprised.”
She proceeded to communicate with them in Korean for a moment or two and, after much back and forth, they all raised their hands. The explanation that followed was the best surprise I’d had so far.
When South Korea was going through the Democratization effort there was a great deal of redbaiting. Naturally this was partly because of the war but also (maybe mostly) was because it was a useful tool to neuter workers looking to organize. These charges were apparently leveled at unions in particular and, because of this, coalition-building became an essential part of the foundation of the organizations created. When you’re in a fight to the death like the one they were in, backs against the wall, victory was to be found in solidarity. These alliances have not been perfect, but they had survived Japanese colonization and years of military dictatorship while living under the specter of war prior to Democratization so they weren’t unfamiliar. When it came time to be together, it just made sense.
Social justice unionism is about integrating labor into other movements so, after their explanation that the DNA of struggle in South Korea has always been defined by this need for solidarity, I understood why the phrase wouldn’t make sense. For them it wasn’t about integration. The connection had been there from the start.
And the hand raising? Well, Wol-San had asked how they identify politically and one person said “radical syndicalist.” Apparently the others agreed and showed that agreement with a raising of hands.
After we were finished with questions, I looked at Wol-San with a grin.
“Booze and pictures?”
“Booze and pictures.”
Before I left for Korea, I stopped at the local liquor store for some Kentucky bourbon. That in itself is a good story that I’ll use later. Getting it into the country was tricky but, after some negotiating, I managed to bring in two bottles. The one I ended up presenting to General Secretary Lee was a bottle of Jefferson’s Ocean.
I informed her that this bourbon is special in that it crosses the equator multiple times by boat before it is ever sold, picking up the flavors of the world and integrating it with Kentucky bourbon. I let her know that just like its flavor, it brings with it a world’s worth of solidarity and love. There was no translation needed for what was communicated (“ooh” “wow” was what I heard from all the leaders) and she said under better circumstances we’d have a drink after hours together. I laughed, knowing sneaking a six foot four Black man into a closed South Korean union hall was unlikely, but informed her that I’d be back (hopefully with more of us) and I’ll gladly take her up on that when I do.
We took some photos together and then it was time for the next meeting: KCTU’s unification committee.
In the tale, a tiger and a bear (Ungnyeo) lived together in a cave and prayed to the divine king Hwanung to be made human. Hwanung heard their prayers and gave them 20 cloves of garlic, a bundle of mugwort and ordered them to stay out of the sunlight and eat only this food for 100 days. Due to hunger, the tiger left the cave after roughly 20 days, but the bear remained inside. After 21 days, she was transformed into a woman.
Ungnyeo was grateful and made offerings to Hwanung. Her lack of a husband drove her to depression, and she began to pray beneath a sacred betula tree (신단수 / 神檀樹) to be blessed with a child. Hwanung heard her prayers and was deeply moved. He took Ungnyeo as his wife and soon after, she gave birth to a son, Dangun, who would go on to found the nation of Korea.
This was our last full day. My body halfway recognized the time zone I was in, so that morning I was up with vigor.
The schedule was a big one for me. We had students in the morning who were on their way to being organizers (woooooow one of my favorite groups of people!) In the afternoon? Conversations with trade unionists! I spent some time the night before going through my notes and thinking about the questions I was going to ask in the afternoon. I was so excited to see what was to come, though a little sad that my days in Korea were coming to an end.
We gathered as usual and moved as usual to our space in the Franciscan building. Inside we were greeted by at least 40 students, all with curious looks on their faces. Now, because our organizers were incredible, we actually had a list of submitted questions from them. Check it out:
2. When and how were you involved in peace movement? You all have very interesting careers.
3. What we know about peace movements in the U.S. is mostly about anti-Vietnam war in 1960s. So can you introduce the U.S. peace movement in recent times to us?
4. What is the main challenges for the US peace movement? In South Korea, it is the existence of North Korea itself. Especially the North Korea’s serial threats. It makes South Koreans accept the military build-ups and aggressive strategies in the Korean peninsula.
5. What’s the effect of Donald Trump’s election on the U.S. peace movement? What’s the main change made by the advent of the Trump administraiton?
6. Many people in Korea have much expectations on the new president, Moon Jae-in, hoping that he will make changes. This makes people believe in his polices rather than social movements, so it weakens the power of social movement now. We think that this situation might be similar with that of Obama in the U.S. How was it like making social/peace movements when Obama was in the White House?
7. We are against the THAAD because we think it increases the possibility of nuclear war. Please tell us about the nuclear disarmament movement in the US and its results to us.
8. “Pivot to Asia” strategy of the U.S. endangers the lives of people of East Asia. But most americans do not consider this as their businesses. How about the peace movement in the U.S? What do you think about the crisis of East Asia?
9. There are hundreds of millions of young people suffering from economical crises and unemployment around the world (also in the US) and the chances of war threatens their lives directly. Are there young people’s movements against social problems like these in the US? Please explain about them.
10. Reece, you are working to expand understanding and believe in the importance of peace in the labor movement. Why are you trying to expand anti-war peace work within the labor movement? What are the challenges and the successes?
We split them up and engaged them individually, though occasionally our answers overlapped. When it came to my turn, I dipped a little into my own story and told it on a kind of merged timeline. I have always found it interesting how my time as an organizer matches up with my current organization’s history, as I entered Union Summer in 2003 around the same time as USLAW came into being.
After the story, I talked about how the anti-war movement has stagnated for many of the same reasons that USLAW struggled in recent years. Labor and the anti-war movement have not moved with the new currents and were unresponsive to calls for racial and climate justice. Further, systems that had been built to further democracy within unions had created ossified institutions that couldn’t hold the weight of what was being built. The anti-war movement had ossified as well, but that stagnation had figuratively frozen leadership in place. The result was a movement that couldn’t even see past an internal deficit, let alone organizing universe, that was becoming dramatically different in the 21st Century. My hiring then, imperfect and still unproven, would represent a change in the way USLAW saw the landscape in front of them.
I also went into the same talking points I had touched on previously about workers who make weapons of war. For more about that, you can look at previous days, but it was interesting how the students were so curious about we accomplished the task of talking to people that were so far outside of their personal experience.
We ended with a few fun pictures and some high fives. I was practically vibrating with excitement as our next meeting was with KCTU leadership! We took one last picture and headed out to the Union hall, minus Jill Stein as she had a meeting with the Korean Green Party.
The two men that approached me actually looked pretty typical. In fact, looking back at their approach, they were fairly nerdy looking guys. The only thing that gave away their affiliation and intentions was their clothing. They were dressed for the heat, in banana-colored shirts and khaki pants, but they were entirely too clean and together. In their approach they were clear in their identification and had actually addressed me by name, but I couldn’t quite hear them because right as they started talking a gigantic choir began singing songs of peace behind me. I had to stifle laughter as their mission was interrupted by angelic voices, particularly the voices of children.
They asked me two questions that told me a great deal about why they were following us, the first being a general query about where I was from in the United States. It was said with gentle curiosity, so I think they were genuine. The second was literally “Are you bringing more people with you?” and I was a little shocked and confused. Did they think I was literally flying more people in that same day? Were they referring to more Black people? More trade unionists? When they asked, one of them took out a notebook, so I think they wanted specifics. By that point, I was worried I was misunderstanding them so I asked one of our translators to come by and help me.
Once they arrived and saw who I was speaking to, it was clear to me that I was truly having a conversation with intelligence agents. My translator buddy was hostile toward them and a little unhappy that we were talking. She wasn’t upset with me necessarily, just unhappy with the situation as they apparently had also been talking to Jill Stein with similar questions. After some excuses, I was away from them and on to the next task.
We had a rally to speak at and, while there is photographic evidence it happened pretty quickly. All I remember is getting up there, nearly falling off the stage stairs because the heat was getting to me, and saying a few words. Afterwards, I basically sat in the Buddhist temple until it was time to leave. Though this meant skipping the march, I felt I made the right call. My body was exhausted and I needed to rest my extremities as they had seriously swollen.
From there we said goodbye to our hosts at the retreat center and made our way to the van. It would be a long drive to our next hotel and we were all very tired. We would stop along the way for dinner with some union members, beginning 24 hours of labor interactions.
Wol-San, in addition to being our amazing guide and translator, works for the largest union in the KCTU. That union, KPTU (check the Resource page for more information,) represents an interesting cross-section of public sector employees and transportation workers (think if AFSCME, IBT and SEIU merged.). Members of her union graciously agreed to eat with us. The conversation we were a part of shined more light on what life has been like for union members pre- and post-uprising. It was also good to be able to have real union members in front of my delegation comrades who don’t normally have this kind of interaction with my folks.
At one point, during a discussion of whether things were improving with the Moon administration, there was disagreement between two union steward equivalents. One, a man who worked in transportation, felt that Moon needed more time to fully realize his potential in office and thought once he had solidified enough political support he would be more progressive but still thought his election was the end of the uprising. The woman sitting across from him, a lead steward who worked in education, disagreed and issued her disappointment in the new administration. She felt the fight was far from over and that there was so much more to be done. I had to smile at the conversation, reminding myself of the arguments in breakrooms I witnessed during the Obama administration.
Same as it ever was.
Day 4 will be a three-parter and much heavier in detail than usual, so I let this one be a little shorter with more pictures.
The myth starts with the creation of the world, when the sky and the earth were one. As there were no sky nor earth, as a result, there was only an empty void. However, one day, a gap formed in the void. All that was lighter than the gap headed upwards and formed the sky. All that was heavier than the gap fell down to become the earth. From the sky fell a clear blue drop of dew, and from the earth rose a dark black drop of dew. As these two drops mixed, all that existed, except the sun, moon, and the stars, came to be. From these two drops came humans and even the gods.
The leader of the gods, Cheonjiwang, awoke to the cry of the three roosters; the Rooster Emperor of the Sky (Korean: 천황닭), the Rooster Emperor of the Earth (Korean: 지황닭), and the Rooster Emperor of Humans (Korean: 인황닭). According to some scholars, the cry of the roosters signify time.) Cheonjiwang knew that the three roosters were crowing because there was no sun. To appease the roosters, Cheonjiwang crafted two suns and two moons, and made the two suns rise and fall every day and the two moons rise and fall every night.
Day 3 really started at the end of Day 2. But I’ll explain.
We had a late night meeting with Won Buddhists that I sadly can’t really remember well because I was exhausted, but I do recall video being taken. I’ll add it here when I get a copy of it. After that, we headed to the Buddhist retreat center where we were sleeping for the night.
It’s worth mentioning that prior to maybe 50 years ago, what I think of as a traditional bed was not that popular in Korea. It was common, and in many places is still common, to sleep on the floor with a blanket and a pillow essentially. The concept, known as ondol sleeping, was an option made available to us at the Won Buddhist Retreat Center. Most folks were worried about me sleeping this way because of my size and circulation issues. The heat was oppressive and it definitely had an effect on me.
But there was no way in Hell I was going to miss out on sleeping in a traditional space. So I did.
– It had become clear that if I was going to be a full participant, I needed to be ready to make commitments. I didn’t fly 15 hours, destroying my sleep cycle, to smile and shake hands. I wanted to get shit done.
– I have circulation problems and that’s just a truth in my life. I need to make sure I don’t hurt myself, but those problems can’t ever take me out of the room. No matter the pain, I’m staying in the room.
I went to sleep knowing that the next day would be tough.
We woke up the next day to an awesome breakfast from our hosts and some great conversation. The ride to Seongju was short and upon arrival at the temple where the days’ events took place, we were introduced to the space where we would meet with farmers from the village. The building was one of few areas with air conditioning, so there were many people moving in and out. The floor was littered with shoes of folks anxious to meet with us. We added our shoes to the pile and, after some settling in, we gathered in a large circle together.
The big circle, the size of pretty much the entire room, was on one side made up of villagers and our delegation. The other side was 75 percent press, the rest our interpreters and a few other folks who were wandering in and out. As the cameras took photos of us sitting, the villagers looking ready and most of us looking uncomfortable sitting on the floor, I could feel my lower body slowly growing numb. We went around doing introductions and I could feel that my extremities were getting cold despite the day’s heat. It got bad enough that I was having a hard time even listening to people talk about their role in the struggle against THAAD in Seongju. I gestured to Wol-San that I needed to stand up and move, but my lower body was asleep. I asked Will for some help in getting up and he generously helped me to my feet, even as my right leg completely locked up and blazed with pins and needles. Will said aloud that maybe we should take a break and go outside and, even though I was in pain I knew what I had to do.
“No, I’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, I don’t care what happens. I’m not leaving the room.”
I limped over to the doorframe and decided to remain standing for the rest of the meeting. Medea took the place I was sitting, ensuring the pictures would still look good and there wouldn’t be an empty space. The circle round continued, and we entered the meat of the conversation fairly quickly.
The villagers and others explained many reasons why the THAAD missile system was such a horrible thing. In their explanations you could hear the root of various presentations and press statements made by many in the delegation. Everything from potential health risks to the placement of the system in a site of religious significance came into play. The system was incredibly disruptive in their lives and they, in general, just wanted the damnded thing gone. We were mostly going through the motions slowly when someone asked, pointedly, what steps we planned on taking when we returned. The room was quiet for a second, so I volunteered to talk first.
I first informed people about who I was talking to when I returned home. I let them know that the American labor movement is taking a great deal of interest in what I was doing and when I wrote these blog posts at night, I received lots of interested communication. I told them that the first thing that was going to happen was an extended amount of time spent communicating this message on a kind of tour. I’d spend this time telling people what the villagers told me, with the idea that we would figure out a way to do something about it. The villagers applauded furiously and, while I was happy that they were happy, I needed them to know that I wasn’t done.
If I was going to tour the country talking about them and their experiences, there also needs to be more visits from other trade unionists we are in relationship with. Because of the work that our organization has been doing around just transition, it only makes sense that as we find workers that are willing to confront militarism with us that we should include them on these tours at some point in the future. I did my best then to implore them to be open to the people I bring back. Most military-industrial complex workers aren’t the soulless and greedy people they are said to be. Most of them, when they learn of the devastation their product causes, are deeply affected. If they were willing to allow them in and develop a relationship, there was no telling how far we could go.
That meeting ended with the usual pictures and handshakes and we all exited into the hot air outside. At this point we had additional press interviews and the chance to connect with villagers one on one, so we all split up with either a translator or on our own. I found a quiet spot to sit with a bottle of water and used the space to connect with people. After a few minutes, I was joined by two men with beige khaki pants and white shirts.
“Hi. Are you Reece?”
“Hello. I’m Mr. X and this is Mr. Y. We’re Foreign Intelligence agents.”
Glad to be back, though I wish circumstances were better all around. More later.