Revolution or reform? Union-worker cooperative relations in the US and Korea

woojin strike1

by Minsun Ji

A long-standing question facing labor movements and labor studies is whether the presence of class consciousness strengthens or weakens labor movements. In a recently published study, I examined the premise that the level of class consciousness plays an important role in shaping the nature of union-cooperative relations, and their transformational potential, in the United States and Korea.

I studied two cases of union-cooperatives using in-depth interviews and surveys: Denver’s immigrant taxi worker cooperatives (Union Taxi and Green Taxi) in the US, and a bus cooperative, Woojin, in South Korea. In both cases, worker cooperatives have been formed with significant support from a labor union.

My findings showed that union-cooperative partnership that has a stronger sense of class consciousness develops a strong sense of worker solidarity with other workers and engages in more radical forms of labor activism. By contrast, union-cooperative partnership with a weaker sense of class consciousness among members can be very limited in building an effective labor movement.

With regard to awareness of class issues – class consciousness – taxi cooperative members in the US viewed themselves as owners, rather than workers.  Seventy one percent of surveyed workers stated that they are “owners” of their taxi business (rather than “workers”), and 59% of workers stated that they did not think of themselves in class terms.

On the other hand, In Korea, Woojin worker coop members viewed themselves as “workers” rather than “owners.”  Ninety-six percent of Woojin members considered themselves as “workers,” and 70% of workers considered themselves in “class” terms, mostly describing their own position as “working class.”

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Why do workers in the US and Korea have different perspectives on their self-definition as “owners” or “workers,” and on the notion of class? There are external and internal factors that have shaped different labor ontologies over time.

Regarding external factors, each country’s union-cooperative pattern has been influenced by the broader political-economic context. While labor unions in the US have had a long history of accommodational business unionism, labor unions in Korea have had a long history of labor militancy, influenced by the necessity to militantly organize against the non-compromising state.

Regarding internal factors, the different ways by which labor unions in both countries defined their roles vis-à-vis cooperative activists shaped the nature of relations between labor unions and worker cooperatives.

In the case of Denver, two worker cooperatives were organized by the Communication Workers of America union (CWA 7777), which reached out to taxi workers who are typically hard to organize due to their legal status as independent contractors. The partnership between the coops and the labor union in Denver was always largely mechanical, formalistic and contractual. It was a clearly defined relationship in which the labor union benefitted from membership fees from taxi workers, and in return worked to provide professional assistance in drafting and passing legislation to help taxi drivers open a new taxi coop.

In one case, CWA 7777 provided physical space at low rent, though as soon as the taxi coop earned enough income to purchase their own building, Union Taxi terminated this business relationship with its union landlord.  Thus, although the labor union was active in helping a union-cooperative to launch in the beginning, CWA 777 did little to connect with workers after that.

After five years of this limited partnership, the very first union-coop, Union Taxi, withdrew from CWA 7777 in 2015, as members felt that the union only took their membership fee and did nothing.  One worker argued that “they only took my money ($360) a year. Why should I pay money when they do nothing for us?” At the same time, workers also acted out of their own individualistic interests as taxi coop owners left the labor union when they purchased their own building and no longer needed a union.

Thus, American partnership was purely driven by a business deal in which each party only established a partnership based on their narrow individualistic goals.

The case of a union-cooperative partnership Korea was very different. With a background of labor militancy, a labor union saw the emerging Woojin bus driver cooperative as an opportunity to organize workers into engagement with the broader labor movement across Korea.

While most taxi workers in the US viewed labor unions simply as a professional organization to help with political lobbying, Korean bus workers (64% of respondents) saw their labor union as a necessary organization that builds “solidarity with other community groups.”

In fact, the Korean labor union has encouraged workers to participate in numerous rallies to support other workers’ struggles.

At Woojin, 58% of workers have participated in 1-5 rallies to support other political causes every year, while 32% have participated in 6-10 rallies a year.

This strong sense of community solidarity, and a sense of collective management by workers did not happen overnight. After experiencing a series of internal turmoil in 2008, Woojin revamped itself to re-establish “one management, one labor” principle, heavily educating workers on managing their company. The very first thing that the labor union did was to get rid of the concept of “owners,” to build the collective spirit of valuing a worker self-management company.

Workers are also obligated to take a six month “self-management class” where workers spend hundreds of hours discussing politics, the philosophy of self-management, labor history in Korea, capitalism theory, workers’ culture, and management related issues. The result has been dramatic.

Since the launch of the “political education on self-management” classes, workers have been participating much more in running their company.  In the survey, 110 out of 165 workers participated in 100% of business management meetings (including various committee meetings), and 74 workers or 45% of workers answered that the biggest benefit of self-management was that “I got to learn more about collective value of self-management.” This contrasts to what the majority of American workers viewed as the biggest benefit of a union-coop:  individual economic gain.

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In conclusion, not all union-cooperatives should be assumed to be radical or politically-oriented.  The Denver union coops studies here are best seen as an alternative “collective capitalist” institution, which worked to convert individual workers into business owners, whereas Korea’s union-coop model studied here was committed to converted individual workers into a class-conscious working class.

The concept of class (or its absence) is a critically important factor in shaping the nature of union-cooperative relations.  While a strong sense of class within a union-coop, as shown in the case of Korea, can play an important role in building a stronger labor movement, the absence of a “class” perspective in union-coops like Denver’s taxi cooperatives powerfully limits their transformational potential.

Minsun Ji was the founder and the executive director of Denver’s first day laborer worker center, El Centro Humanitario that protects the rights of day laborers and domestic workers and has a PhD in International Studies at the University of Denver.

This article summarizes findings from “Revolution or Reform? Union- Worker Cooperative Relations in the United States and Korea,” Labor Studies Journal.

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