Reece Chenault, left, with members of the US Solidarity Peace Delegation and others in South Korea, July 2017.
By Paul Liem | September 9, 2017
This is the second in a series of interviews with the five-member U.S. Solidarity Peace Delegation to South Korea from July 23 to July 28, 2017, of whom the delegation coordinator, Juyeon Rhee, was denied entry to South Korea under a travel ban imposed by the Park Geun-hye administration, a ban that remained in force under the new administration of President Moon Jae-in.
The delegates met with South Korean peace and labor activists, the Chair of the National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee Shim Jae Kwon, and villagers of Seongju, Gimcheon, and Soseong-ri who are waging a struggle against the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in their communities. The delegation was sponsored by the Taskforce to Stop THAAD in Korea and Militarism in Asia and the Pacific as well as the Channing and Popai Liem Education Foundation. It was hosted in South Korea by the National People’s Action to Stop the Deployment of THAAD in South Korea (NPA), a coalition of 100 civil society organizations.
Delegates Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK, Reece Chenault of U.S. Labor Against the War, Will Griffin of Veterans for Peace, delegation coordinator Juyeon Rhee, Jill Stein of Green Party USA, have since spearheaded an international petition campaign calling upon presidents Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump to pull back from the brink of war in Korea by halting the war games and negotiating a freeze on missile and nuclear weapons testing with North Korea.
Following the delegate’s return to the United States, Paul Liem, KPI Board Chairperson, interviewed the delegates about their experiences in Korea and their reflections on how to strengthen solidarity between peace activists there and in the United States. His interview with Reece Chenault follows.
PL: Thanks for your time this morning Reece. I think our readers would be interested in knowing a bit about you. How did you came to be involved in the labor movement? What were your earliest experiences that influenced your path?
RC: I was a student in college, I guess in 2000, and I had just transferred to a new school, Virginia State University, which is a historically black college in Petersburg, Virginia.
RC: I was pretty introverted and shy and had just started to get to know people on campus and develop some relationships. Fast forward a year, we are headed to class and get word that planes had hit the towers in New York. And for me it was a very different experience being on campus with folks who were personally affected by the events of 9/11. Their family and friends were in New York, many were working class and trying to get home. They couldn’t because work study payments at the university had been late. Many didn’t have money, phone lines on the college campus and cell phone lines were jammed.
That was my first sense of just how difficult it can be for working class students who also have jobs and other responsibilities in life. I started to develop more relationships with these students and met some professors I trusted and liked. Over the next few years I became more of an activist, partly because of anti-war activism that was going on, but then I also developed a greater appreciation for that intersection between struggle, the anti-war struggle that was on the ground, being working class and also being a student. It was a complicated time.
I led a student action on campus. We locked the administration building with chains and locks as part of a protest and the cops got involved.
PL: Let me just step back bit. What were the demands of students?
RC: The school wasn’t going to pay us for work already performed at our work study jobs. At a historically black college, that struck a lot of students because the connection between that and slavery was apparent. They also suspended a lot of the rights of students on campus. We also had many students in ROTC and other programs. They got activated as part of the call to war after Bush’s ramp up of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So those were our big issues. But It was also deeply connected to money. Actually, a lot of kids just wanted their money back.
My professors were saying to me, you know, your student activities on campus, things are getting kind of hot, and maybe you ought to think about taking some time off. I wasn’t going to stop. But they turned me on to Union Summer program of the AFL-CIO and said maybe you should explore that. I got accepted into the program, summer of 2003, and went to Mississippi.
I had never seen poverty like the poverty I saw in Mississippi. It totally blew my mind that people in the United States lived that way and continue to live that way. It blew my mind even more that they were usually working in job that were the biggest in town, but were still living in third world conditions. So I stayed. I worked on a union campaign with the printer’s union that later merged with the Teamsters. From there I was hooked, and I’ve been union organizing ever since. It’s been about 15 years.
PL: Those were tumultuous times you came up in. You’re now the national coordinator for U.S. Labor Against the War. How did you arrive at your focus of working on the anti-war issues from within the labor movement?
RC: For me the anti-war movement and the labor movement have always been connected. A lot of anti-war folks just didn’t expect Black students to participate at all. The idea was that they just didn’t care about what was happening. But I knew the truth. I knew that my friends really did care about war. But they didn’t see themselves in the movements that were taking shape. That wasn’t true for everyone but it was definitely true for folks that I was with. They saw a lot of the activity as silly in a time where they themselves felt threatened.
My friends on campus were talking about how militarized their neighborhoods had become and how the police had taken on military tactics and strategies and implemented them in their neighborhoods and how they felt like they lived in war zones but nobody cared about the war zone they lived in. They cared about wars that were thousands of miles away. I took that to heart and it affected the way that I organized on campus. When I would go and talk at national gatherings and events, a lot of anti-war activists would tell me they had never heard people talk about war that way.
PL: Can you explain?
RC: Connecting the war at home with the war abroad. People would try but there wasn’t a lot of desire on the part of anti-war activists to make those links and to understand how those wars are connected. So when the opportunity to work for US Labor Against the War came up I was anxious to take it. I think that the connection is easy to make. It’s not a question of whether or not the connection is legitimate. It’s a question of will. Are we willing to do the soul searching work and change as labor organizations? And I’m seeing it happen. National Treasury Employees Union here, NTEU, passed a resolution in support of a moving toward social movement unionism and also to develop a Racial Justice caucus. This is the kind of thing that needs to happen. And the issue of demilitarization and the effect that it has on union families, often overwhelmingly people of color, makes a real impact and makes a real difference in how we organize and also how we connect to the issues.
PL: What made you decide that it was important for you and for your organization to be involved in the Solidarity Peace Delegation to Korea in July?
RC: The most common e-mail I get post November 2016 is “what the hell is going on in certain countries?” I get an e-mail from a random union member, it asks, “union leader, can you explain to me what’s happening in Syria? Explain to me what’s happening in Afghanistan. Explain to me what’s happening in Pakistan?” And over and over again in my e-mail box there is an increase each month in messages about North and South Korea.
I think what happened was people were terrified by Trump’s language and there were no indications as to who on his team would be making substantive policy decisions about foreign policy other than him. People just thought well if Trump is at the wheel then it’s going to be terrible. The actions at the airports, for example, took the media attention by storm. They highlighted immigration policy, impacts of our foreign policy and other conflicts that we were engaged in. Then bluster and language about North Korea that had been happening all throughout the campaign, was now suddenly front and center and people were really concerned about that.
Even now in the past 48 hours we’re thinking we’re on the brink of nuclear war. I’m getting messages from shop stewards and Union leaders who are saying “now everybody’s talking about North Korea, and I saw that you just went to South Korea, did you happen to go to North Korea?” I reply, no, I didn’t go there. Then they say, “Well what do you know about North Korea?” They want a left perspective on what’s going on in Korea. And when people started asking me more and more about it I said well I’m just going to have to reach out. I spoke with Bruce Gagnon of the Global Network (Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space) and talked with the Korean activist Hyun Lee. When the opportunity came up to actually go to Korea, I thought this would be a natural next step. It’s just something that we have to do.
All of the conversations among members about complex international relations and foreign affairs were happening without a lot of guidance. And people look to us to provide more information. So if we’re not going to be able to supply it, they’ll get it elsewhere. And the information they will get is probably going to be pretty bad. So we have a responsibility.
Reece Chenault at press conference in Korea.
PL: What did you want to take with you to Korea as a message people you would meet? What did you want to share with them about the U.S. experience and struggles here?
RC: When I first met Hyun I was at a conference in Alabama to talk about workers who make weapons, who work in the military industrial complex. I wanted to put a face on the faceless and to give the audience a sense that the workers feel really trapped in their situation. I sometimes describe it as a burning house. There’s political machinations that keep the workers inside. But there’s also just the trappings of life, the need to provide for your family and the more complicated problem of dignity and respect that you get from having a job that pays enough for you to live on. Ultimately we as the labor movement in the U.S. need to take responsibility for these workers as our brothers and sisters and try and help them figure a way out of the predicament of either supporting militarism or staying poor.
Politicians aren’t going to be able to help them because they’re trapped in the same burning house. Their campaigns are often financed by these corporations. No one ever gets out without supporting militarism in some way. But we want people to know that those workers can’t, they can’t exist in isolation, while there is a desire within them to change. Nothing works that way. Solidarity is what’s going to get us out of the burning house, because isolation and desperation is what got us into the mess in the first place.
PL: Did you have opportunities to explain this predicament of workers in the defense industries with people that you met? Were you able to speak with labor activists in Korea?
RC: After I explained the work that we’re trying to most folks were shocked and also surprised that workers weren’t just blindly taking the money and weren’t just happy with that. I was particularly interested in the reaction of folks in Seongju who were convinced that American workers just didn’t care and were happy to build anything for money. Once I explained the situation and also that we’re doing something about it, the response was positive across the board.
PL: As you look back on all the things you did in that very short period of time is there any one or two single event or a meeting or person that resonates with you still, that stands out in your mind?
RC: Talking to the unification committee for the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) was really informative. It helped me understand just how important it is that we as Americans understand the way the rest of the world sees us and how that picture is of our own making. For U.S. labor folks, it’s a learning experience talking about the relationship between the AFL-CIO and intelligence agencies in the United States and how for a long time the AFL-CIO was known as the AFL-CIA because of its participation in all kinds of chicanery. And in Korea to say that people know about that and are well educated about it is an understatement. Folks were quick to point out that the United States holds a lot of responsibility for the situation that they face in Korea and that the work moving forward requires the participation of U.S. labor. It was hard but it was great to be there, to have that conversation, and to be pushed to think about what are some concrete things that we can do to move forward together
It was uncomfortable for us to think about doing anything around North Korea just because of the political challenges here at home. But by the end of our conversation with the KTCU reunification folks I was ready to say let’s figure out some ways to meet with North Korean trade unionists. You know it’s going to be a challenge. And you know we’re going to have to think about how we’re going to meet but we can do it if we put our minds to it.
PL: Is this something that you are proposing to US Labor Against the War, have you come back and proposed to meet with the North Korean trade unionists?
RC: Last night I gave my full report to the U.S. Labor Against the War steering committee. When I left for Korea we weren’t even prepared to make Asia an area where we were going to do intense work. We weren’t prepared for that. But I reported that as the only organization in the United States that works with Labor on this particular issue of international solidarity, we have a responsibility to take this on. There are areas of work where we can involve labor unions that normally wouldn’t have anything to do with us. In the short term I’m going to have to do some traveling and explain in different parts of the country the work we’ve been trying to do.
But in the medium term and the long term we need to think about going back to South Korea with a full labor delegation and meet one on one with people who represent the various trades. But also think about the soccer game between North Korean and South Korean trade union folks. I said look I know we can’t go if it’s in North Korea but if it’s in South Korea or China let’s go to the soccer match and let’s build on that. When it was time for questions people were freaked out about going to North Korea. But if we met in a neutral space, someplace where it wouldn’t be risky for us to travel, the steering committee was excited. So U.S. Labor Against the War is forming a task force of different union leaders and over the next month, we’ll decide where we can do some work. So we’re committed; I think it’s really exciting. When I left for South Korea we were not prepared to engage in this new area of work, a new geographic region. But now we are.
PL: That’s amazing, Reece. I hope that you’re able to communicate your success to those you met in Korea. I’m sure they would be thrilled to know how your meeting went last night. That’s historic I think that U.S. Labor Against the War is taking this step. Before closing is there anything else that you want to share that we didn’t talk about?
RC: The only thing I would say is that one area of focus for us is going to build a solid crew of folks to return to South Korea and do some work with trade unionists there. I’m interested in bringing younger people who are thinking about labor in a 21st century way and in trying to find some rising stars within the labor movement to come along with us and engage in this work.
PL: Reece, I hope we can continue to have conversations with you and wish you every success in your work.
RC: Thank you man, I really appreciate it.
*Reece Chenault has spent almost fourteen years as a union and community organizer with ONE DC, Restaurant Opportunities Center in New Orleans and SEIU Local 500. Currently Reece is National Coordinator for U.S. Labor Against the War, an anti-war organization dedicated to changing the labor movement’s foreign policy from within. Reece is also on the Board of Directors for the National Black Worker Center Project.
*Paul Liem is the Chair of the Korea Policy Institute Board of Directors.