By Taryn Assaf
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”- David Foster Wallace
Helper #7 was a factory worker at age 13. In one of many dark, dusty, cramped attics of the Pyeonghwa factories in Seoul, she labored 14 hours a day sewing fabrics into clothing to be sold in the markets below. She spent most of her day as such, with 10 to 15 minutes to eat, and, if she was lucky, one bathroom break. She rarely had time to stretch her legs and almost never tasted a drop of water. About 20,000 people –mostly young women- worked in the same building, hunched over sewing machines, breathing in dust and chemicals, barely seeing sunlight, all for pennies a day with no hope of overtime pay. Such was the reality in 1960’s Korea.
Factory workers at the time suffered from tuberculosis, eye damage, digestive disorders, and exhaustion in order to support Korea’s booming economy and ownership class. Labor laws existed, but were rarely followed. Helper #7, who later went on to become Machinist #1, worked eight years in the factory before discovering that the conditions she experienced were illegal. She began learning more about the labor law and workers’ rights through participation in the “Work Classroom”, a class designed to raise workers’ consciousness about their rights. There, she became referred to as Ms. Shin Soon Ae, a name she was well familiar with. Ms. Shin was forever changed by what she was taught in the Work Classroom. She discovered that unionized workers enjoyed 8-hour workdays, one day off per week, and overtime pay. Before the Work Classroom, Ms. Shin didn’t know she was a fish swimming in water.
Ms. Shin soon joined the Cheonggye Clothing Workers Union, which was established immediately after the self-immolation of the now iconic Jeon Tae-Il. Tae-Il was a young factory worker who, in a last ditch effort, set himself on fire in protest of labor rights violations he saw and experienced. He died soon after, and asked his mother, Lee So-Seon, to continue to fight for labor rights in his honor. She, along with the help of her son’s closest friends and allies, set up the work classroom, which was a helpful tool in instigating people into the movement. Both Tae-Il and his mother have since become principal symbols of the labor movement in Korea for their unabated efforts in bringing rights to workers. Through her involvement in the union and a new consciousness about workers rights, Ms. Shin participated in many protests. One resulted in the achievement of a workday ending at 8pm, which was extended to thousands of workers in her factory. Others did not end so triumphantly- one protest landed her six months in prison, where she was regularly beaten and interrogated. Her story has rarely been heard.
So it usually goes. Those who dare defy the status quo in the name of workers’ rights are often met with violence or are else completely ignored. The thousands of people whose faith is tested, bodies beaten and hands cuffed in the battle to win their rights -those like Ms. Shin- are no less pivotal to the acquisition of those rights than the leaders who are at the heart of it. They, too, experience hardships that become inspirational to others or that spark others’ involvement in the movement. They are the veins through which revolution flows, bringing oxygen to a society struggling to survive.
When social transformation occurs, people fight, bleed, cry, hope, build and grow together. There are people who, undoubtedly, will be forgotten in certain struggles while others become immortalized in history. While idolizing certain individuals for their irreplaceable contributions to societal transformations, it becomes impossible to document, let alone acknowledge, the thousands or perhaps millions of people whose smaller yet no less critical roles inspired, guided and supported those revolutionaries. Who are the people who change history? How did they contribute to their struggle? And, perhaps most curiously, how are they like us?
When pondering the lives of the likes of Gandhi, Mandela, Chavez, King -those most highly regarded for possessing a keen sense of justice and unbreakable moral fibers- we undergo a process of “othering”. However, unlike the traditional sense of the term, whereby a person or society “others” those it wishes to subordinate, it becomes ourselves that we exclude from the ranks of the great revolutionaries. In this way, we construct roles for ourselves as the mere beneficiaries of their important historical contributions. They become the change that we witness.They make the history that happens to us. But history is cyclical, never really starting nor ending but rather emerging from a succession of events made possible by multiple actors. People change history. How can we begin to understand our role in that history and in the history to be?
We can start by understanding that social transformation is made from more than the leaders who encourage it. The heart cannot keep the body alive on its own- it needs the help of supporting systems. Likewise, a single individual cannot facilitate change without the support of a collective. That collective is made up of like minded individuals, perhaps from all walks of life, who may not necessarily know what the right answer is or what the outcome will be but know, and know very deeply, what is wrong. We become a part of something transformative the moment we accept the idea that we can no longer accept the ideal. Is that different from what eventually propelled those figures into positions of authority in their struggle? Not entirely- and that is what makes us every bit as important as them. We may not understand how, but we are the change we want to see. That is what makes our contributions to history- however insignificant they may seem- more important than we may ever know.
The facts in this article are based on an interview conducted with Ms. Shin Soon Ae, an inspiring woman and important actor in the Korean labor movement.