Korean Americans and Ethnic identity
In April 1990 representatives of the Pico Korea Union of electronics workers in Buchon city, south Korea, traveled to the United States in order to demand just settlement of their claims from the parent company of their employers, who upon the formation of the union had shut down operations without paying the workers. From the beginning, the union cause was championed by an unprecedented coalition of Korean American groups and deeply affected the Korean American community on several levels.
First, it served as a rallying focus for a diverse community often divided by generation, class and political ideologies. Most notably, the Pico cause mobilized many young second-generation Korean Americans, many of whom had never been part of a political campaign before, let alone one involving Korean issues. Members of this generation, unlike first-generation Korean Americans, generally fall within the more privileged sectors of the Korean American community and often feel alienated from their Korean roots. In addition to raising the political consciousness of young Korean Americans, the Pico struggle sparked among them new interest in their cultural identity. The Pico workers also suggested new roles that can be played by recent immigrants, particularly working-class immigrants. These immigrants’ knowledge of working conditions overseas can help to globalize the perspective of their communities and can help to establish international ties on a more personal level, as witnessed in the especially warm exchange between the Pico workers and recent working-class immigrants from China. In addition to broadening the political base within the Korean American community, the Pico struggle also led to new alliances between the Korean American community and progressive labor and social justice groups within the larger society—as evidenced in the support received from the Coalition of Labor Union Women and leading African American unionists.
The reasons for these effects lie in the nature of the cause. The issues raised by the Pico unionists had such a strong human component that differences within the community became secondary to larger concerns for social justice and workers’ rights. The workers’ demands for compensation and respect were unencumbered with strong ideological trappings. The economic exploitation faced by the Pico workers underscored the common interests of Korean workers, Korean Americans, the working class more inclusively, and a broad spectrum of community leaders.
The Pico workers’ campaign thus offers an important lesson. It demonstrates that ethnic communities need more than just a knowledge of history and culture as artifacts of the past in order to strengthen their ethnic identity. It shows that perhaps the most effective means of empowerment for many ethnic communities of immigrant derivation may be an identification with and participation in current struggles for economic and social justice in their countries of origin.