Seoul The Mayor of Seoul, Won Son Park, is a widely recognized progressive, former human rights lawyer, and as he pointedly mentioned to me, “an activist.” As speakers at the afternoon conference, we were meeting with him early in the morning along with the leadership of the Seoul Welfare Foundation which was sponsoring the Seoul International Welfare Forum 2012 along with Hyowoo Na, director of Asian Bridge, an ACORN International’s partner in Korea. The meeting was in his office of course in the super modern, space age City Hall.
The Mayor was plain spoken and gracious. His desk was stacked 3 feet high with reports and paperwork. A set of slanting, crooked shelves behind his desk held yet more reports. More interestingly the back wall was filled with post-it notes. We asked about his rainbow of notes as we left and it developed that he was known here for collecting comments from citizens about improvements for the city. He was careful to point out to all of us that the citizens were the “boss” in Seoul. I told him when my turn came that in the USA we had a president who had been a community organizer, but seemed to have no concept what they might mean, so it was a pleasure to meet a mayor that actually cared about community organizing.
The welfare conference theme was “Community Organization for Sustainable Welfare System” and Ed Shurna of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and myself were both giving keynote addresses with other speakers from Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, and Korea on the program. Ed, a friend and comrade, was tasked to give some sense of the history of community organizing from Alinsky forward. My topic focused on the stated goal of the city and the welfare foundation to deliver 20% of their services “using community organization methods.” Ed had definitely drawn the easier straw, since weeks ago, I had no clear view of what the 85 community welfare centers might have to do with welfare.
After several days immersed in the program, this was also not “welfare as we knew it” in the sense of cash payments, benefits, eligibility, and needs tests. This was “social welfare” in the broader terms, but they were also modeling social enterprise. Talking to a visiting professor from Sweden, it seems the city was “broke as a joke.” It could have meant that they were looking for “sustainable” welfare in order to transfer the costs to citizens. Such a framework would explain the field visits the previous day better.
We’ll talk more of all of this, but the Mayor was without doubt the real thing, so it was hard not to be optimistic even in fact of concerns.
Tokyo Ken Yamazaki is the deputy senior research officer in the international affairs branch of the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, a Phd, just published author on community organizing, and a helluva guy in my book. Having visited New Orleans recently with his delegation as they tried to better understand labor and community organizing, when I said there was a chance I could come by Japan en route to a commitment in Korea, he jumped to the task to cobble some pieces together to help pay the freight for this side trip to Tokyo and eastern Japan to the footprint of the earthquake and tsunami. Within days he said, no problem, you’ll need to do a seminar. I should have been suspicious when the topic seemed to be history of community organizing, proscriptions for rebuilding the labor movement, and, yes, and…what we had learned in New Orleans about rebuilding after disaster from Hurricane Katrina.
One thing led to another and the next thing I knew as it came closer to the date, the seminar was really more like a lecture, and the topic was a combination of all of these things and 130 or so people were already committed, having responded to the call. The location was going to be in the auditorium of Liberty Tower at Meiji University it turned out, but that wasn’t really clear until Ken walked me into the tower an hour before the scheduled beginning. As we had traveled around eastern Japan, I was starting to understand, since I had prepared one paper for him for the money and then at the last minute needed to ship off to Tokyo the appendix from Battle for the Ninth Ward, my last book, entitled “The Organizer’s Short Guide to Rebuilding after Disasters.” I’m used to some high wire trapeze work without a net working across cultures and languages, but my comrade and colleague might have gotten me higher that I was ready for in order to dance for my supper in Tokyo.
When I finally got the list of panelists who were going to respond to my “lecture,” I knew I needed to hustle and step up to the mark. Ken was moderating the panel that would give comments and ask questions on my remarks, but it included Yoji Tatsui, a key researcher for the Japanese Trade Union Congress (JTUC- RENGO) who was the Deputy Director of their Research Institute for Advancement of Living Standards, (closest to me in the picture of the panelists), Yoshitake Obata, a founder of the Edogawa Community Workers Union and activist with the Network of Community Unions of Japan, who had visited ACORN International and A Community Voice in late 2008 about living wage campaigns in New Orleans and written for Social Policy, Takanarita Takeshi with the Japanese Workers Cooperative Union whose work we had seen in the disaster zone and who had written about the work in a forthcoming article in Social Policy, and, very interestingly, Makoto Kawazoe, the Secretary-General, of Shutoken Seinen Union, the general union of Young Workers in Tokyo.
It all went well enough, and I hope I made in difference. Puzzling out reactions through translations is difficult, and when I heard different translators had been called to duty on almost every page, one pauses to think how it might have come together for the readers, but at least they have their own puzzling they can do later.
They took seriously my notion of “majority unionism,” and it provoked comment. The notions of “community unions” connected to the major labor federation I continue to find fascinating. How much they are involved in organizing was hard to tell, but work on living wages counts for a lot in my book, so I’m looking forward to learning more. The young workers union was also of interest. We ran into a similar effort recently in El Alto in Bolivia. Neither effort is very large yet, but both focused on informal or irregular workers, as they are called in Japan. These are large gaps and established unions, judging from Brother Tatsui’s responses, see them positively.
Tatsui’s questions from the point of view of the institutional labor movement were excellent. He was interested in whether current workers had more loyalty to the company or the community? Japan is obviously legendary for the commitment workers have to their firms, but I shared with him what we had learned organizing Walmart workers in high turnover retail. The commitment was to their sense of themselves as being “skilled” in retail and though they may have left Walmart, most of them were going through the cycle: Target, Home Depot, and, often as not, back to Walmart and around again. The “community” was the network of jobs and the workers who did them, and neither the company nor the geographical area.
This is an important dialogue, and Ken Yamazaki understood fully, even if it had taken me awhile to catch on, what he was doing and what he hoped from me. He, like so many of us now in the United States, has come to believe that community-labor models offer hope for revitalizing labor, and he understands that there is a lot about community organizing methodology that speaks to a possible future for labor’s next stage. The conversation has now been engaged. Walking into the night, I could taste how much people wanted to be part of the discussion in Japan – I did, too!
Now, it needs to happen everywhere! Then, we must move past talk to real action.