North-Korea-physical-mapWith North Korea, one of the five remaining Communist countries in the world, at the border, South Koreans developed a particularly sensitive attitude towards anything that evokes the idea of Communism. I grew up in a typical conservative South Korean household, where family dinners ended with “so-no-Communist-activities” preaches by my grandfather. Sixty years ago, he fought in the Korean War as a teenage South Korean soldier. When the war was finally over, he realized that his hometown, which was part of South Korea before the war, became part of North Korea, and that there was no way he could go back to his family. Left all alone, he had to do everything on his own. He worked hard, studied hard, and after much struggle, eventually started his own business and became successful.

My grandfather always stressed the importance of working hard without cheating. His life was a proof that anybody trying hard enough could succeed. From his perspective, the labor union was a group of people that asked for more without trying hard enough. Knowing what kind of a life he went through and knowing how much his employees respected him, I believed his words.

But as time passed, I began to wonder: Was his the only right view? Were poor people just lazy? What about my closest friend, who dropped out of school and had to settle down for a serving job at $6 an hour? She was one of the smartest, most hard working people I have ever known. Contrary to my grandfather, who benefited from a period of transformation, she was trapped in a rigid economic system that prevented people at the margins from climbing the social ladder. And the labor union seemed to be an extremely helpful option that could protect people like her from being exploited. What was this discrepancy between what I learned from my family and what I learned from the real world?

This question prompted me to take the “Video for Social Change” course. During the first few weeks, I felt like I wasn’t in the right place. I was a foreigner who wasn’t well-versed in the economic situation of the U.S. While everyone else seemed so passionate and knowledgeable about underpaid workers and inequality gap, I was just starting to get a glimpse of those issues.

But during last Wednesday’s meeting, hearing from someone who organized the fast-food strike in Durham and worked with underpaid workers made me realize that the issue was not about ideology but about real people and the struggle they go through every day. I wasn’t here to discuss the political contexts of labor unions. I was here to try to listen to and convey people’s stories, stories that were unheard for so long.

The readings on the history of labor unions and the film Norma Rae helped me understand labor unions’ needs and goals. They also prompted me to look more into South Korea’s labor union history and activities. In the 60s and 70s, labor unions were formed for the first time in South Korea and tremendously improved the quality of life of laborers, much like the American labor unions in the 30s to early 70s did. Even though some labor unions in South Korea have lost track of their original intentions, it wasn’t right to overlook the part of history where they greatly improved many people’s lives.

Written by Elaine Pak (Duke ’17)