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A multidisciplinary, transnational approach to modern labor issues

A multidisciplinary, transnational approach to modern labor issues

UCLA sociologist Jennifer Chun. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

The work of sociologist Jennifer Jihye Chun, a labor scholar, spans both Asian American and Asian Studies.

"Almost immediately after toppling authoritarian labor repression and building a strong labor movement, South Koreans had to deal with a neoliberal turn that attempted to push back many of the gains that workers had made."

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, December 4, 2019 — Jennifer Jihye Chun brings a unique perspective and skill set to her work as a scholar: the methodological training of a sociologist, deep knowledge of the U.S. and South Korean labor movements and significant experience in Asian American community organizing.

A labor scholar who looks at both ends of the Asian American equation — labor organizing in South Korea and elsewhere in Asia, and labor organizing in Asian American immigrant communities — Chun employs a transnational approach that examines how labor, gender, race, class and migration intersect in today’s global economy.

A dream job

Chun joined UCLA in 2018, where she has a joint appointment to the Asian American Studies department and the International Institute, where she teaches in the East Asian Studies and International Development Studies Programs. “I feel very lucky to have what I consider a dream job at UCLA,” she says.

“I was trained in sociology and have been teaching sociology for the past 12 years [first at the University of British Columbia, then at the University of Toronto],” she continues. “But as my interests have evolved, I’ve become part of a new generation of scholars that are really thinking about the connections between ‘here’ and ‘there,’ and what we think of as the local and the global.”

Chun is particularly delighted to have the chance to work with the scholars of the UCLA Labor Center. “The center is an incredibly dynamic and innovative place to think about the links between community and academic research,” she remarks. “On the practitioner side, they have driven major innovations, partnering with workers, unions and community groups to do research, build capacity and support community-based organizing.”

“In some ways, the history of unionism is a history of racial exclusion,” she explains. “But in Los Angeles, the labor movement has taken the lead in organizing immigrant workers and workers of color, as it was formed in the aftermath of major migration waves from Asia and Latin America. It also formed at a critical turn in the social sciences toward engagement with ethnic studies and social movements, especially in Chicana/Chicano studies, African American studies, in labor studies and in Asian American studies,” she adds.

Koreatown, Los Angeles. Photo: Paul Narvaez via Flickr, cropped; 2014/ http://bit.ly/2PduY7r. CC BY-NC 2.0 / http://bit.ly/2Rr8Hpg. Los Angeles is also a big draw for Chun because it has the largest Korean American population in the United States. Its vibrant, dynamic Koreatown, she says, is closely connected to contemporary South Korea in terms of actual businesses and cultural practices — down to the phrases and colors used on placards in local political demonstrations. Plus the city is home to many community organizations that work in collaboration with the UCLA Labor Center, including the Koreatown Immigrant Workers’ Alliance and the Korean Resource Center, among others.

“Because I'm an ethnographer, as soon as I got here, I said to myself that my next project would engage LA and the local Korean-American community," says the UCLA professor. She notes that many Korean Americans eventually make their way to Los Angeles, saying she has run into many friends from the Bay Area who have relocated here. “So it oddly feels like home even though I’ve never lived here before,” she remarks. “That’s a fun thing about LA.”

Worker responses to new labor realities

At UCLA, Chun is integrating two important parts of her life: a long history of community organizing and her scholarly work in labor studies. “Instead of feeling like I had to keep the two separate in order to maintain the integrity of each, I'm now in a department and among various scholarly communities at UCLA that have advanced knowledge and practices about how to work collaboratively and how to think about academic work and social change in sophisticated ways,” she remarks.

The sociologist became interested in the South Korean labor movement and how it was addressing the challenges of precarious employment as a graduate student at Berkeley. That interest soon prompted a curiosity about the U.S. labor movement and how it was dealing with the challenges of a global neoliberal age. She soon became actively involved in the International Sociology Association (ISA), where she met international labor scholars exploring similar issues in countries across the world.*

The UCLA professor’s research interests also sparked a lifelong self-education in Asian Studies, starting with learning the Korean language in graduate school. While at Berkeley, Chun also plunged into Asian American community organizing, working throughout graduate school with Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) in Oakland to advocate for low-income immigrant Asian women workers.

November 7, 2010. Labor rally in Seoul in protest of the G20 meeting.(Photo: Steve Herman/ VOA
via Wikimedia Commons.) Public domain

Organizing among precarious workers. The UCLA professor’s her first book, “Organizing at the Margins: The Symbolic Politics of Labor in South Korea and the United States” (Cornell, 2011), examines how low-wage, low-education workers engaged in informal, precarious employment organized to protect their rights in South Korea and the United States.

Based on her dissertation, the book documents comparative case studies of the labor campaigns of subcontracted university janitors (two in the U.S., two in South Korea) and personal service workers (homecare workers in Los Angeles and women golf caddies in South Korea).

In both countries, global competition and neoliberal economic policies caused companies to cut costs through outsourcing and a variety of other means, all at the expense of workers. While traditional factory- and sector-based unions (e.g., automotive worker unions) are declining in strength, marginalized workers employed in precarious jobs have succeeded in creating new unions in the South Korea and the U.S. in recent years.

“The book is about the embrace of symbolic struggles, about people trying to cultivate symbolic power as a way to turn the tide of neoliberal changes that were taking place contractually,” says Chun. “They were thinking about narratives of what’s right and what’s wrong, creating public dramas and trying to get community allies involved.” In 2012, the book won the Distinguished Book Award of the American Sociology Association’s Race, Gender and Class Section.

South Korea, says the scholar, experienced a compressed period of industrialization that gave rise to a powerful labor movement, much like that of the U.S. labor movement in the 1930s. “But almost immediately after toppling authoritarian labor repression and building a strong labor movement,” she explains, “South Koreans had to deal with a neoliberal turn that attempted to push back many of the gains that workers had made.

“Especially after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, many, many people lost their jobs,” she continues. “Others lived through very abrupt transitions: from having a permanent position to becoming a contract worker to being re-contracted and having their wages and benefits cut.

“But the problem was, because this was a global shift, workers employed in precarious work didn't have the power and leverage that they would have had in say, an auto factory as a full-time, directly employed worker,” points out Chun.

Public cultures of protest. Chun continued to follow labor protests in South Korea after publishing her first book, repeatedly traveling there to interview workers and do fieldwork. Her second book, which she is currently co-writing with colleague Ju Hui Judy Han (assistant professor of gender studies at UCLA), addresses the public culture of protests in South Korea. The UCLA sociologist spent a year there doing intensive fieldwork for the book in 2016–17, a period that coincided with the unprecedented mass peaceful protests against President Park Guen-hye that culminated in the latter’s impeachment in March 2017.

January 7, 2017. Protest against President Park Geun-Hye in Seoul. (Photo: Matthew Schwartz via Wikimedia Commons, cropped.) CC BY 3.0.

The new project, says Chun, “looks at protest as repertoires of resistance” that take ritualized and dramatized forms, such as high-risk aerial occupations (e.g., of a construction crane or the top of a transmission tower or LED billboard) and slow-moving worker processions in which protestors adapt a Tibetan Buddhist ritual by repeatedly taking three steps and a bow. Often, she explains, such protests are staged at the coldest time in winter or the hottest time in summer in order to dramatically convey the impact of deteriorating labor conditions.

“For a long time, I didn't really know how to understand these protests. I didn't want to see them solely as desperate actions by desperate people, as a lot of the media perceives them,” she remarks. “I began to think of them as performative practices that serve as a vehicle for expressing workers’ experiences and communicating to the public why recent labor market transformations are so de-humanizing and destabilizing for families and communities,” continues Chun.

Collaborative transnational studies

Chun has been extraordinarily busy in the past few years with two major research projects, both of which reached completion in 2018. “Care Work in Transition: Transnational Circuits of Gender, Migration, and Care,” co-edited with Heidi Gottfried, was published as a special two-issue volume of Critical Sociology (Vol. 44: 7–8) and includes an introduction and paper co-authored by Chun. “Gendering Struggles against Informal and Precarious Work,” co-edited with Rina Agarwala, is a special volume (35) of Political Power and Social Theory.

The outcome of long collaborative processes, the two publications represent the tangible convergence of Chun’s scholarly and community organizing work. “Gendering Struggles” was a natural outgrowth of Chun’s scholarly interest in informal and precarious work in the global economy. On the other hand, she says, “The home care project came out of my community work with AIWA and them telling me, ‘We need to understand the home care sector.’”

Members of the organization moved from working in the garment and electronics assembly industries in Northern California to working in home care when market conditions changed. AIWA followed its clients into the new sector, but sought to understand its nuances and complexities, particularly as workers in California’s in-home supportive services sector have been unionized since 1999, yet still earn low wages and have few benefits. Their collaboration in the study, says Chun, is a reflection of the trust she had built with AIWA over many years.

“Care Work in Transition” was developed over several years, including several panels and a special forum organized by Chun and Gottfried at two International Sociology Association conferences. The project brought together a number of researchers who don’t usually interact. “There’s a lot of scholars who study care, gender and migration,” she explains, “but few people in labor studies were looking at the confluence of these topics.”

Care work, she specifies, “is intimate labor, often for family members, or sometimes for friends of family members or neighbors, yet these workers still experience wage theft. But you can’t just go on strike,” she says. “There are different labor issues in this sector — it's not always antagonistic or oppositional in the way a campaign against garment sweatshops would be.”

The second project, “Gendering Struggles,” brought together a multinational team of sociologists to do ethnographic research on worker organizational efforts in two informal labor markets — domestic work and construction — in five countries (United States, Canada, South Korea, Mexico and India). The study focuses particularly on gender, explains Chun, “because so much informal and precarious work is done by women, as well as by immigrants and migrants and racialized groups.

“The goal of the project was to do intensive field work in two sectors,” she relates, “and, based on the fieldwork and analysis that followed, to think about global similarities and differences in those sectors across countries,” she continues. “In addition, we wanted to explore the possibilities for organizing a more cohesive global labor movement, despite the challenges of informal, precarious work.”

Chun has a long track record in collaborative work. In addition to these two significant research projects, she developed collaborative skills doing community work and trained graduate students to do collaborative ethnographic research when she was in Canada. Yet she still considers collaborative projects to be experiments. “They’re all experiments,” she relates. “I think how we scale up ethnographic work — which is really place-based and contextually based — on the global level is still a work in progress.”

What’s next on her research horizons? Most likely, a study that explores community formation and local politics among Korean Americans in LA and Los Angeles County — and their connection to South Korean politics and protest practices. “I think this community has such a local sensibility,” she says, “but also at the same time, a truly global sensibility. It makes it a very interesting place.”

*Chun went on to become vice president (2006–10) and then president (2010–14) of the ISA Labour Movements Research Committee. Today she is secretary-treasurer of the Asia and Asian American Section of the American Sociological Association.

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Published: Wednesday, December 4, 2019