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Organizing at the Margins

Organizing at the Margins: The Symbolic Politics of Labor in South Korea and the United States

Jennifer Jihye Chun
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press,
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Organizing at the Margins
    Book Description:

    The realities of globalization have produced a surprising reversal in the focus and strategies of labor movements around the world. After years of neglect and exclusion, labor organizers are recognizing both the needs and the importance of immigrants and women employed in the growing ranks of low-paid and insecure service jobs. In Organizing at the Margins, Jennifer Jihye Chun focuses on this shift as it takes place in two countries: South Korea and the United States.

    Using comparative historical inquiry and in-depth case studies, she shows how labor movements in countries with different histories and structures of economic development, class formation, and cultural politics embark on similar trajectories of change. Chun shows that as the base of worker power shifts from those who hold high-paying, industrial jobs to the formerly "unorganizable," labor movements in both countries are employing new strategies and vocabularies to challenge the assault of neoliberal globalization on workers' rights and livelihoods.

    Deftly combining theory and ethnography, she argues that by cultivating alternative sources of "symbolic leverage" that root workers' demands in the collective morality of broad-based communities, as opposed to the narrow confines of workplace disputes, workers in the lowest tiers are transforming the power relations that sustain downgraded forms of work. Her case studies of janitors and personal service workers in the United States and South Korea offer a surprising comparison between converging labor movements in two very different countries as they refashion their relation to historically disadvantaged sectors of the workforce and expand the moral and material boundaries of union membership in a globalizing world.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5845-3
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xix-xxii)
    (pp. 1-23)

    The struggles of janitors as well as other low-paid service workers—many of whom are immigrants, people of color, and women—demonstrate that building power from the margins is not only possible but pivotal to the future of workers and their collective organizations in the twenty-first century. The unexpected makeover of one of the most unglamorous segments of the U.S. workforce speaks to the transformative potential of marginality. By rendering the injustice of poverty wages and social inequality both intimate and public, SEIU has refashioned the identity of janitors from one of the most undervalued and demeaned segments of society...

    (pp. 24-43)

    While the balance of power between states and capital is the subject of continued debates in the contemporary world order (Evans 1997; Ohmae 1995; Ong 1999, 2006; Sassen 1996), the widespread decline of organized labor is rarely disputed. Over the past three decades, union density levels have declined across the industrialized world (Griffin, McCammon, and Botsko 1990; Tilly 1995; Western 1997). In countries with low levels of unionization such as the United States, the moral and material pressure of global market competition spelled early, rapid, and devastating defeats. Unions suffered massive losses as plants shut down and relocated to lower-waged,...

    (pp. 44-67)

    As privileged segments of the unionized workforce experienced severe rollbacks in union gains in declining industrial sectors from the 1970s onward, the more vulnerable segments also confronted downward pressures on wages and deteriorating employment standards. While much attention has been paid to the recruitment of young, single, third-world women into transnational production circuits, where the wages and working conditions are reminiscent of nineteenth-century industrial sweatshops (Fernandez-Kelly 1983; Fröbel, Heinrichs, and Kreye 1980; Fuentes and Ehrenreich 1984; S. K. Kim 1997; Lim 1983; Salzinger 2003), less attention has been paid to the production of a “third world within”—that is, immigrants,...

    (pp. 68-100)

    Employer and state offensives against privileged workers in traditional union strongholds, alongside the concentration of historically disadvantaged workers in expanding sectors of the low-paid service economy, have contributed to deepening crises for labor movements in both South Korea and the United States. Faced with downward pressures on union membership, wage and benefit levels, job security, and employment standards, the labor movement in these two countries is embarking on surprisingly similar avenues of change. Instead of engaging in exclusionary forms of unionism against more vulnerable workers to prevent further wage degradation and job loss, as Edna Bonacich (1972, 1976, 1980) argued...

  10. 5 WHAT IS AN “EMPLOYER”? Organizing Subcontracted University Janitors
    (pp. 101-141)

    As chapter 4 demonstrates, marginalized workers in both South Korea and the United States have been actively contesting the downward wages and employment pressures associated with social and economic marginalization. Social movement legacies play an important role in efforts to organize traditionally disadvantaged workers such as women, immigrants, and racial-ethnic minorities. By providing subordinated groups with protest tactics and moral vocabularies utilized in previous struggles, social movement legacies create organizational and cultural repertoires that can be reused and adapted during subsequent struggles. It is important to note, however, that social movement legacies do not simply reproduce themselves; they must be...

  11. 6 WHAT IS A “WORKER”? Organizing Independently Contracted Home Care Workers and Golf Caddies
    (pp. 142-170)

    After repeatedly being denied their collective labor rights as “independent contractors,” 74,000 home care workers in Los Angeles voted to unionize on a single day in 1999, snowballing into successful union campaigns in almost every major county in California and in several states across the country including Washington, Oregon, New York, Michigan, and Illinois.¹ Under the motto, “invisible no more,” SEIU locals, in coalition with disability rights advocates, consumer groups, and community organizations, provided voice, visibility, and political representation to hundreds of thousands of home care workers—the majority of whom represent an “invisible” population of women and immigrants. Likewise,...

    (pp. 171-184)

    This book has sought to compare the seemingly incomparable: labor movements in South Korea and the United States. For most of the twentieth century, the U.S. labor movement has stood as a stark exception to other parts of the world. Whether characterized by a relative absence of class consciousness or exceptional employer hostility toward labor radicalism, its trajectory—up until the 1970s—reflected a steady path toward bureaucratic, service-oriented unionism in which unions traded better wages and benefits for industrial peace. Since then, however, organized labor’s compromises with capital and the state have resulted in a continued deluge of job...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 185-198)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 199-214)
  15. Index
    (pp. 215-222)