Which Comes First? Labor or Environmental Movement?

by Hwa-Jen Liu, National Taiwan University, Taiwan and Treasurer of ISA Research Committee on Labor Movements (RC44)

On November 13, 1970, Korean textile worker Chun Tae-Il led a ten-man demonstration protesting dire working conditions, demanding “a nine-hour workday with four days off a month.” As the confrontation came to an end, Chun set himself on fire, shouting, “We are not machines! Enforce the labor code.” Chun’s self-immolation and the struggles it inspired heralded a budding democratic union movement and exposed deep capital-labor conflicts under the development scheme masterminded by the military junta.

Four months earlier, in Taiwan, 95 Taiwanese farmers demanded financial compensation and the relocation of a nearby food-processing facility which had discharged liquid toxins directly into the local irrigation system, causing crop damage to their fields two years in a row. This episode, along with the 64 similar petitions, picketing, and confrontational actions that took place in the same year, marked the first peak of Taiwan’s antipollution mobilization, which aimed to curb unlimited industrial expansion promoted by the developmental state.

Neither Chun’s protest nor the Taiwanese farmers’ demands were isolated incidents and they, therefore, raise the following conundrum. Similarities in colonial heritage, authoritarian rule, and rapid industrialization produced similarly harsh working conditions and a degraded environment in both countries. Yet the movements moved in very different directions. Although Korea’s labor movement and Taiwan’s environmental movement began to take shape at the same time, it would take another decade before Korea’s environmental degradation and Taiwan’s labor plights aroused the same level of public passion. Given the structural similarities between Taiwan and Korea, why did the sequence of their labor and environmental movements unfold in reverse order?

The secret lies in the realization, and the limits, of two types of movement power – the particular characteristics that give each movement the ability to influence the world – in the context of developmental states and corporate economies. Organized labor’s leverage rests on the indispensable role of workers in the system of production and service delivery. By withholding labor power, workers prevent the capitalists from realizing profit. By contrast, the environmental movement does not have any organizational leverage but relies on the discursive ability to persuade the public of a new ideology, based on its claim to be working toward universal and collective good.

Although, in the 1980s, the Korean and Taiwanese states were both authoritarian, they nonetheless adopted different strategies in dealing with social movements: the Korean state adopted heavy repression and the Taiwanese state cunning incorporation. These differential strategies were successful in containing Korea’s environmental movement and Taiwan’s labor movement, but Korea’s labor movement found a way of dealing with repression just as Taiwanese farmers were able to respond to cooptation.

When Korea’s labor was heavily repressed and its grievances were unaddressed, unionists found loopholes to strengthen organizational infrastructures and build solidarity among workers; repression could not stop them from pursuing their leverage power. When Taiwan’s seemingly-almighty government failed to resolve problems linked to rampant environmental pollution, pollution victims and environmental advocates learned to petition higher administrative levels, taking up confrontational actions, and discussing their cause with whoever was willing to listen, including media outlets. The result was a broad dissemination of environmental ideas and gradual accumulation of ideological power. Ironically, even though the political context might still prevent successful movement outcomes, especially in the beginning, the context nevertheless favored particular types of strategies. This way the Korean labor movement consolidated its power of leverage while the Taiwanese environmental movement developed its ideological capacities and hence the early emergence of the different movements.

Once the two early-riser movements had established themselves as the prevailing oppositional forces, they set in motion national patterns for generating movement power. Korea’s labor movement left a legacy of uncompromising militancy and self-organization, while Taiwan’s environmentalists continued to rely on strategies involving pragmatism, political negotiations, and compromises. The subsequent movements – an environmental movement would follow labor movement in Korea and a labor movement would follow environmental movement in Taiwan – borrowed from and reacted to these “early-riser templates” for their organizational and cultural strategies.

This comparison reveals two sharply distinct movement trajectories structured around movement power. In both countries, labor movements enhanced their leverage by organizing strategic industries such as auto, petrochemical, postal services, and shipbuilding; both environmental movements maximized ideological power by mastering the art of public relations campaigns and grabbing news headlines.

Yet power maximization came at a price. Organized labor was tainted by claims that it represented a “labor aristocracy,” which cost it popular support. Its support base was further eroded when capital relocated plants, eliminated lifelong employment guarantees, and deployed “unorganizable” immigrant and contingent workers.

Meanwhile in both countries, as environmental protection became part of public discourse, new and powerful contenders surfaced. Governmental environmental protection agencies, environmental consulting firms and private think tanks all jumped in to challenge the movements’ monopoly of environmental discourses. Further, both Taiwan’s and Korea’s environmental movements have continued to lose battles against corporate power, in part because their ecological visions have failed to include concerns about the economic survival of the poor and disadvantaged.

During crises, both labor and environmental movements have worked to acquire a second source of power, compensating for the limitations of their original advantage. Thus, labor movements sought to articulate their concerns in terms of a broad public interest, while environmental movements have tried to build greater leverage to counter corporate supremacy.

It is also at the moment of crisis that the possibility of a genuine labor-environment alliance increased, as both sides began to empathize with and appreciate each other’s predicament and accumulated skills. Labor in both cases has proved itself strong at grassroots organizing but weak in discursive production, whereas the environmental movement has tended to be stronger at discursive production and less strong in grassroots organizing. Each movement possesses a specific set of skills and natural talents that its counterpart lacks and needs.

This cross-movement comparison underscores the mutual complementarity of labor and environmental movements. Using “movement power” as a guiding concept to reorient the discussions on movement emergence, sequences, and trajectories, the cases of Taiwan and Korea reveal the basis of labor-environmental alliances. The comparison should prompt academics and activists alike to reassess the past and the future of labor and environmental movements, two forces that have significantly shaped social life – and our image of the future – in modern times.[1]

Direct all correspondence to Hwa-Jen Liu hjliu@ntu.edu.tw

[1] A more extended argument can be found in Leverage of the Weak: Labor and Environmental Movements in Taiwan and South Korea, 2015, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Taiwan, Volume 5, Issue 4

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