Varieties of Industrial Unionism in the Undergrounds of New York and Seoul

Youbin Kang, University of Wisconsin - Madison

I consider the ways in which transit unions, which have traditionally been militant archetypes of industrial unionism, have evolved over time. I do this through a comparative historical analysis of the Transit Workers’ Union Local-100 in New York and the Seoul Transit Labor Union in Seoul. The United States and South Korea are unlikely comparisons at first blush but share surprisingly similar characteristics regarding labor politics. The two countries have similar trade union density levels that have declined over time, from 15%-10% over the last 50 years and established American and Korean trade unions, including those in the public sector, tend to turn to collective bargaining in the workplace rather than to labor law reform to secure workplace-related rights, such as wages and benefits, partially due to the repressive nature of the state against labor in the two countries. The divergence in the two cases is that Seoul transit workers have been much more active in building an industrial union movement that embraces sector-level policy changes rather than resorting to a model of craft unionism, as has been the case in New York. I make two arguments. First, the dispositions of transit workers in New York and Seoul relate to the different changing needs of infrastructural development in the two cities. In New York, deindustrialization and demographic shifts thwarted the vision of industrial unionism when ethno-racial conflicts in the city and disinvestment in infrastructure weakened the labor movement. In Seoul, infrastructural needs were growing, and an absence of ethno-racial conflicts made room for class (and gender) -based solidarity. Second, the style of labor control, through legal and institutional practices in New York compared to physical repression in Seoul, impacted the extent to which the legitimacy of collective action was perceived by urban residents.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 208. Unions and the Fight for Labor Rights