Responding to Austerity: Subway Worker Movements in New York City and Seoul

Youbin Kang, University of Wisconsin - Madison

Urbanization has historically been accompanied by concerns around urban poverty, motivated by wage polarization and dissipating working-class jobs in urban spaces around the world. In this context, academics have produced a rich body of literature focusing directly on the empirical realities of poverty and poverty wages. Contributing to this literature, I propose a study of an alternative possibility that allows for economic mobility in the tight labor market. A job in the subway system, with job security and bountiful benefits for working-class urbanites is a fascinating outlier to the inequalities of cities, especially in times of economic recessions. These good jobs in the subways have persisted to a certain extent, despite economic crises in the subway systems of New York City and Seoul. Through comparative historical analysis based on archival research of the 1990s Asian Financial Crisis in Seoul and the 1970s Fiscal Crisis in New York, I ask how the labor movement behind subway jobs have shifted their fights during economic recessions and a shortage of ridership that affects urban transit during times of crisis. New York City and Seoul offer strikingly similar paths that regards the direction of the labor movements towards democratic unionism after periods of corporatist compromise, despite differences in macroeconomic influences, urban political and cultural contexts. The comparison of these two movements offers theoretical insights into the influence of activists, themselves shaped by “structuring structures” in creating alternative paths for the unions to flourish, against narratives that support austerity of public services.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 75. Social Struggles in the City