Korean Workers Launch Major Wave of Strikes, Winning International Support

Tim Shorrock

The strikes pose one of the biggest crises in South Korean labor since the 1980s, when workers seized on the country's democratization to create one of Asia's most dynamic labor movements. (Photo Credit: Korean Public Service and Transport Workers' Union)

Over the past few weeks, thou­sands of South Kore­an trans­port work­ers have gone on strike to protest against gov­ern­ment reform” pro­pos­als that would make it eas­i­er for employ­ers to fire work­ers, weak­en senior­i­ty pro­tec­tions won through col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and pri­va­tize some state-owned industries.

The strikes, and the South Kore­an government’s fierce crack­down on labor, have gen­er­at­ed an unprece­dent­ed response from glob­al unions over what they see as clear-cut vio­la­tions of work­ers’ rights to free­dom of association.

This has become a chal­lenge to the whole inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty and is enor­mous­ly dam­ag­ing to the Kore­an government’s inter­na­tion­al rep­u­ta­tion,” Stephen Cot­ton, gen­er­al sec­re­tary of the Inter­na­tion­al Trans­port Work­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion (ITF), told In These Times.

In Wash­ing­ton, AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Richard Trum­ka is hav­ing fre­quent meet­ings” with South Korea’s ambas­sador to dis­cuss his con­cerns over the sit­u­a­tion in Korea, said Cathy Fein­gold, the federation’s top for­eign affairs offi­cer. We’re very involved.”

The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agree­ment, which includes a clause designed to pro­tect labor rights, is anoth­er hook” U.S. unions might use to assist their Kore­an allies, Fein­gold said. The pro­tec­tions in that pact, includ­ing free­dom of asso­ci­a­tion, can be enforced through trade sanc­tions and fines, but are rarely used.

The strikes pose one of the biggest crises in South Kore­an labor since the 1980s, when work­ers seized on the coun­try’s democ­ra­ti­za­tion to cre­ate one of Asi­a’s most dynam­ic labor move­ments. In the after­math of the demo­c­ra­t­ic rev­o­lu­tion in 1987, the Kore­an Con­fed­er­a­tion of Trade Unions (KCTU) was born out of inde­pen­dent orga­niz­ing efforts that had been sti­fled for years in heavy indus­try, auto­mo­biles, trans­porta­tion and ship­build­ing. It is now the sec­ond largest union fed­er­a­tion in the country.

The lat­est actions began on Octo­ber 10, when more than 7,000 own­er-oper­a­tors in truck­ing joined a nation­al strike against the government’s plan for dereg­u­la­tion of the truck­ing trans­port mar­ket. The con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye respond­ed by declar­ing the strike ille­gal, and her trans­porta­tion min­is­ter called the walk­out an act of betray­al” of the nation.

On day one of the strike, more than 4,000 riot police sur­round­ed truck­ers massed in front of freight depots, includ­ing the New Port” com­plex in the south­ern indus­tri­al city of Busan, the truck­ers’ union said. Fifty-five activists were arrest­ed and five injured, the union added. The Yon­hap news agency report­ed that the South Kore­an mil­i­tary mobi­lized sol­diers to replace strik­ing truck dri­vers, effec­tive­ly trans­form­ing them into scabs.

The strik­ers belong to the Car­go Truck­ers Sol­i­dar­i­ty Divi­sion” of the Kore­an Pub­lic Ser­vice and Trans­port Work­ers’ Union (KPTU) known as Truck­Sol. Wol-san Liem, the KPTU’s direc­tor of inter­na­tion­al and Kore­an Penin­su­la affairs, said that the gov­ern­ment respond­ed like it did because of the truck­ers’ poten­tial pow­er” as well as their pre­car­i­ous sta­tus as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors.” The truck­ers’ union is part of the larg­er KCTU.

Work­ing con­di­tions for Kore­an truck dri­vers are dismal.

They face unrea­son­able sched­ules, long hours, mul­ti­ple lev­els of sub­con­tract­ing, and low rates that put them in a real­ly dif­fi­cult place,” Liem said. The pres­sures force them to speed, over­load and dri­ve at night for long hours — dis­as­trous to health and fam­i­ly life and also dan­ger­ous to oth­er road users.”

She added that prob­lems are com­pound­ed because dri­vers who own their trucks are treat­ed as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors and denied the rights to form and join unions, col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain and strike.

This means they don’t have legal trade union rights,” Liem said. While it’s not ille­gal for own­er-oper­a­tors to col­lec­tive­ly refuse to work,” she added, the gov­ern­ment and con­ser­v­a­tive media try to paint the strike as ille­gal and our mem­bers as a vio­lent mob.”

The truck­ers’ strike is the lat­est event in an autumn of indus­tri­al actions launched by Kore­an unions. In late Sep­tem­ber, oth­er KPTU trans­port affil­i­ates began a gen­er­al strike against the gov­ern­men­t’s impo­si­tion of per­for­mance-relat­ed pay and a ter­mi­na­tion sys­tem. Those actions will sup­pos­ed­ly align the Kore­an econ­o­my with inter­na­tion­al prac­tices but in fact pro­vide tools for employ­ers to eas­i­ly get rid of excess and mil­i­tant workers.

One of KPTU’s affil­i­ates, the Kore­an Rail­way Work­ers’ Union, has been par­tic­u­lar­ly active in that strike because the gov­ern­men­t’s pri­va­ti­za­tion plans include turn­ing over the coun­try’s nation­al rail sys­tem to con­glom­er­ates called chae­bol that already dom­i­nate the econ­o­my. Rail and sub­way work­ers also oppose the impo­si­tion of the new mer­it-based salary sys­tem that would make it eas­i­er for employ­ers to fire work­ers who don’t meet cer­tain quotas.

Dur­ing the rail strike, the KPTU’s Liem said, 165 union offi­cers were sus­pend­ed from their jobs. Worse, employ­ers filed a law­suit seek­ing dam­ages of 165 bil­lion won (about $145 mil­lion) from the union and charged 19 union offi­cers with obstruc­tion,” she said.

Strikes have also tak­en place in the finan­cial and auto­mo­bile indus­tries. This month, the union rep­re­sent­ing work­ers at Hyundai Motor Com­pa­ny, one of the world’s largest car pro­duc­ers, resumed talks with man­age­ment after months of strikes in the automaker’s worst-ever indus­tri­al dis­pute,” the Reuters news agency report­ed (The talks con­clud­ed last week, when 63 per­cent of Hyundai’s work­ers vot­ed to accept a new contract).

There was no let-up in trans­porta­tion strikes, how­ev­er. Despite the government’s attempt to play down their impact, the Kore­an Min­istry of Land, Infra­struc­ture and Trans­port said on Octo­ber 10 that more than 40 per­cent of the rough­ly 18,000 union­ized work­ers on rail­roads and sub­ways were tak­ing part in the strike.

Since the start of the walk­out by rail­way work­ers, the oper­a­tion of car­go trains has been reduced to near­ly half of the usu­al lev­el, forc­ing local firms to depend on car­go trucks to haul their export and import ship­ments to and from the coun­try’s major sea­ports,” report­ed Yon­hap, which is owned by the government.

Mean­while, the ITF and Pub­lic Ser­vices Inter­na­tion­al (PSI), the glob­al fed­er­a­tion of pub­lic sec­tor work­ers, have asked the Inter­na­tion­al Labor Orga­ni­za­tion (ILO) to inter­vene to ensure that the Park gov­ern­ment respects the rights of work­ers in South Korea to free­dom of association.

The strikes in South Korea, the ITF’s Cot­ton said in an email, have been trig­gered by the gov­ern­ment ignor­ing its own laws by impos­ing dras­tic new labour prac­tices in the pub­lic sec­tor. It is no secret that this is a pre­cur­sor to the intro­duc­tion of wide­spread pri­va­ti­za­tion.” Yet, despite labor’s objec­tions, every attempt by the unions to seek talks with the gov­ern­ment has been rejected.”

Glob­al unions and human rights groups have been par­tic­u­lar­ly angered by the impris­on­ment of labor lead­ers in South Korea, includ­ing Han Sang-gyun, the pres­i­dent of the KCTU. He was sen­tenced in July to five years in jail after he was con­vict­ed on charges of orga­niz­ing a mas­sive ral­ly in Seoul last Novem­ber that was declared ille­gal by the government. 

Dur­ing that demon­stra­tion, an activist, Baek Nam-gi, was knocked to the ground by police water can­nons and suf­fered seri­ous brain injury. His death on Sep­tem­ber 25 — and a stand-off with the gov­ern­ment over its attempt to seize Baek’s body for an autop­sy — has sparked demon­stra­tions and vig­ils all over the coun­try, and has become a nation­al sym­bol of the strug­gle against author­i­tar­i­an rule and repression.

The ITF and PSI raised the arrests of Han and oth­er union lead­ers in a joint let­ter to the ILO in Sep­tem­ber. The alarm­ing use of arbi­trary deten­tion and judi­cial harass­ment against (Kore­an) trade union­ists for orga­niz­ing and par­tic­i­pat­ing in pub­lic ral­lies is a major con­cern,” the unions wrote in a let­ter signed by Cot­ton and PSI Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary Rosa Pavanel­li. The ITF and the inter­na­tion­al union move­ment will nev­er accept the impris­on­ment of trade union lead­ers for legit­i­mate trade union activ­i­ties,” Cot­ton added in his email.

The AFL-CIO spoke out in June when it issued a state­ment in sup­port of the KCTU’s Han. And, in a ges­ture of sol­i­dar­i­ty this week, the fed­er­a­tion has invit­ed KCTU offi­cials to New York to speak at the Unit­ed Nations on a recent spe­cial rapporteur’s report on free­dom of asso­ci­a­tion, the AFL-CIO’s Fein­gold said. That report, issued in Jan­u­ary, crit­i­cized a grad­ual regres­sion on the rights to free­dom of peace­ful assembly.”

On Octo­ber 12, as the truck­ers’ strike heat­ed up in Korea, unions from around the world joined in a glob­al day of sol­i­dar­i­ty with Truck­Sol and the Kore­an strik­ers. In San Fran­cis­co, a protest at the South Kore­an Con­sulate was led by Unit­ed Pub­lic Work­ers for Action, a coali­tion that seeks to unite work­ers in the pub­lic sec­tor. The cam­paign can be fol­lowed on Twit­ter at hash­tag #Kore­anStrike­for­Jus­tice.

The glob­al labor move­ment, the ITF’s Cot­ton said, will con­tin­ue to give every sup­port to work­ers in South Korea until the gov­ern­ment starts to respect inter­na­tion­al law and enters mean­ing­ful nego­ti­a­tions with the unions.”

Tim Shorrock is a Wash­ing­ton-based jour­nal­ist who grew up in Japan and South Korea. He is the author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intel­li­gence Outsourcing.
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