Seattle, WA- Exactly one year since the self-immolation of a former UW custodian on Red Square, UW workers rally at site today to commemorate their former co-worker, as well as to ask questions regarding his death.
Discontent with both the UW administration’s response to and media coverage of the self-immolation of a former UW custodian, custodians, trades workers, and students at the University of Washington will hold a memorial service today, October 30, at 11:00am, at the site of the immolation on Red Square. At the memorial service, they demand to know about the events leading up to In Soo Chun's public and dramatic self-immolation.
One year ago, on October 30, 2008, 61-year old In Soo Chun, then recently terminated from his position as a custodian at UW, lit himself on fire on Red Square in front of the UW administration building and later died from second- and third-degree burns on over 90 percent of his body. UW spokesman Norm Arkans quickly wrote off In Soo Chun as “clearly a troubled individual,” which set the tone for broader media coverage on the incident. Most of the press coverage was brief and agreed that In Soo Chun was emotionally unstable.
In South Korea, self-immolation has been used as a form of protest since the 1970s that is tied to the labor movement. It is unclear if In Soo Chun's public self-immolation was also a similar form of protest.
This Friday at the memorial service, UW workers and students will ask pressing questions that challenge the narrative given by the UW administration and local press. According to Mr. Yong Nam, a Korean custodian at UW, “If In Soo Chun committed suicide as administration claimed, then why did he choose to take his life in such a dramatic fashion right in front of the President's office?” Additionally, custodian James Stephen Wilson asks, “Was he trying to protest the mistreatment that UW employees face?” Another custodian at UW and a friend and coworker of In Soo Chun who chose to remain anonymous, emphatically states, “he was not crazy.”
Since late May, custodians and other UW workers have been rallying to protest unreasonable and inhumane managerial practices, such as arbitrary workplace reassignments and transfers, workplace speed up, and increased workloads. Rallies continued well into the summer, even as students dissipated for the summer break, with posters and chants specifically invoking the memory of In Soo Chun. In invoking his memory, custodians have said, “In Soo Chun has died for us.” Many workers who were not even personally acquainted with In Soo Chun choose not to distance themselves from his death based on the administration’s claim that he was emotionally unstable. Rather, they relate to how his death was written off in a similar way workers’ demands are ignored. Others believe that it was the workplace conditions to which In Soo Chun was subjected, similar to those that workers face today, that impelled him to take such a drastic and public action. As Wilson puts it, “We face the same extra work and uncompromising management today that he faced one year ago.” Workers who called on this memorial service see it connected to their continuing struggle for better treatment and humane work conditions at the university. According to Cindy Gorn, a teaching assistant at UW, “In remembering In Soo Chun, we are telling the university that they cannot cover up their mistreatment of workers. We want an independent investigation into his work situation leading up to his death, and we are calling for an end to worker abuse on campus today.”
A Public Records request for any documentation relating to In Soo Chun's termination has been requested since September 2009. As of today, October 30th, the University has yet to release the information.
International Workers and Students for Justice (IWSJ)