Strike wave against anti-worker laws

in South Korea

by Mark, Detroit
(from Communist Voice #12, March 1, 1997)

. The South Korean workers are locked in a major battle against the government. They are fighting against legislation aimed at suppressing trade union activity independent of the government and making it easier for companies to break strikes and layoff workers. From the end of December through mid-January, several hundred thousand workers went on strike, shutting down work places of the rich monopoly corporations and other sectors of the economy. South Korean president Kim Young Sam mobilized thousands of police to suppress the strikes and protests and threatened union leaders with arrest. Meanwhile, since mid-January the union leaders have called off most strike actions. Three weeks of mass actions have forced the government to say it would consider letting the national legislature make some changes in the law. But so far nothing concrete has been won. The Korean workers are rightfully skeptical of the government's promises and new strikes are scheduled if the laws aren't abolished by February 18.

South Korean "democratization": anti-worker laws

. The Kim Young Sam government, which has ruled since 1992, has been touted as an example of how the South Korean rulers have become "democratized" after several decades of military dictatorship. But even though society is more open than under outright military rule, the regime continues to deny workers the most basic rights. Indeed, while the regime has gained fame for punishing former members of the dictatorship, the new legislation carries on the repressive tradition. Even the way the new legislation was passed revived memories of dictatorship. On December 26, 1996, the ruling party organized a secret session of the national legislature and passed the anti-worker laws with no opposition parties present.

. The new laws overturns certain restrictions on layoffs enjoyed by a section of workers. Layoffs hit the Korean workers especially hard because unemployment benefits are non-existent. The legislation also makes it easier to lengthen work hours, allowing unions-management agreements which require 56 hour work weeks before overtime pay kicks in. (The South Korean work week is among the longest in the world.) The measures continued to put severe obstacles in the way of the workers getting organized. It continues to stall in giving legal recognition to any trade union except those tied directly to the government. Thus, recognition of the 500,000-member independent union, the KCTU, was delayed for several more years. Moreover, provisions banned having more than one union at a workplace, thus assuring the larger 1.2 million-member government-approved union, the FKTU, from any competition at enterprises under their control.

. Union leaders are also forbidden from supporting strikes outside of their place of employment.There are provisions that make it easier to hire scabs to replace workers during labor disputes. As well, employers are given the right to sub-contract work during strikes. The new law also apparently tries to maintain restrictions on unions participating in political activity.At the same time, one of the new laws expands the powers of the South Korean political police, the NSP, formerly known as the KCIA.

Background to new laws

. The South Korean workers have had to wage a long, heroic struggle for their rights. Rivers of blood were spilt in illegal strikes and uprisings that helped topple military dictatorship in the 1980s. The South Korean bourgeoisie was forced adopt to the new situation. Limited rights were granted the workers, and democratization also meant free elections, a novelty in South Korea.But bourgeois class rule remained and the government continued to lash out every time the workers movement tried to advance. The workers used their limited rights to develop a struggle that went beyond the bounds set by their oppressors. A powerful wave of mainly illegal strikes at the end of the 80s paved the way for a significant increase in the workers' living standards.

. The South Korean capitalists are now out to drive the workers back down. They are locked in competition for export markets with other industrializing countries in Asia as well as Japan and other top capitalist countries. They want to be able to produce with cheaper labor and fewer workers to gain the competitive advantage. In this way, the South Korean bourgeoisie hopes to reverse its record trade deficit of about $20 billion.

. The December 26 laws are the ruling party's way of settling an impasse that had developed among the bourgeoisie over how to contain the workers' movement. The December 26 measures were the final version of a bill proposed by a presidential commission that was supposed to develop a new labor law. But there were divisions within the commission. An earlier draft of the bill would have legalized the independent unions and allowed them to compete for the workers' allegiance against the government-backed unions. Apparently, at least some representatives of the ruling class realized that repression alone had failed to stop the workers. So they considered moving to a system of legalizing the independent trade unions, but providing the employers with all sorts of weapons to undermine militant struggle. But the small openings given the workers in the 80s had led to a powerful strike wave. So President Kim, and his party, the NKP, balked at legalizing the unions. In the face of the recent protests, however, even some higher ups in the NKP have suggested that it would be better to legalize the KCTU than endure the strikes demanding recognition of the independent unions.

The workers fight back

. The news of the government's surprise attack brought a swift and strong reply from the workers.Within hours after the law passed, major industrial facilities were shut down by strikes including giant shipbuilding yards and plants at all the big auto companies. Within a few days, the KCTU unions had over 200,000 workers on strike. The sentiment among the workers was such that even the government-sanctioned FKTU was forced to call some strike actions. By December 29, some 214 work places were on strike. Numerous protest marches and rallies broke out across the country.

. President Kim at first took a hard-line stance, stating he would never rescind the December 26 laws. Warrants were issued to round up the union leadership, and thousands of police were mobilized to take on strikers and their supporters. But the intimidation tactics only fueled the movement. Newspaper, hospital, broadcast, transport, and employees in the finance sector were among those joining the workers in basic industry. Among the other protests, 15,000 Hyundai workers demonstrated at the city hall in Ulsan on January 7, while on January 9 some 10,000 workers battled riot police in the streets of Seoul. The strike movement grew still larger. By the end of the second week of January, 70% of all KCTU membership was participating and the timid FKTU unions finally increased their mobilization. All told about 750,000 workers were on strike.

. President Kim kept up his intimidation tactics. Union offices were ransacked. A government propaganda campaign tried to appeal for support of the laws and slander the workers' movement as a creation of the supposedly "communist," actually state-capitalist, North Korean regime.Nevertheless, the strikers enjoyed a good deal of support across the country. Dissension began to appear even within Kim's ruling party. On January 21, President Kim announced he would allow the National Assembly to review the hated law.

Issues facing the workers

. While the workers have made the government retreat a bit, this struggle is far from over. Even if the law returns to the Assembly, the ruling NKP party has a majority there. Even if they eventually concede to legalize the independent unions, they are certain to try to couple this with restrictions to take away the power of the workers' struggle as well as allowing the employers to make more layoffs.

. What then of the bourgeois opposition parties? The two main opposition parties have criticized the government for not following due procedure in passing the December 26 laws in secret. But according to the January 23 New York Times, "during much of the strike the [opposition] parties declined to clearly state their opinions on the new labor law, waiting to see which way the wind was blowing." Clearly these parties, which have the same basic class interests as the ruling party, cannot be trusted.

. The South Korean workers will have to rely on their own fighting ability and class organization.This requires a sober appraisal of the trends organizing among the workers. There are the FKTU bureaucrats who run the largest and most meek unions. At best, they have been a reluctant participant in the recent strikes. The FKTU officials generally only mobilized a tiny portion of their membership. In the first days of the strike, it threatened to call out all its membership and then backed down. In mid-January, it finally mobilized about a third of its members, but by then it was already clear that the strikes were about to be canceled for the time being. FKTU leaders also issued empty threats to bring into the strike their unions among postal, rail, electric utility, port, taxi workers and apparently also subway and telephone workers. Strike actions by such workers would have greatly increased the strike's ability to disrupt the economy.But this weak stand is not surprising considering that the FKTU leadership has enjoyed cordial relations with the South Korean government. Indeed, a battle for the rights of other unions to organize could threaten the power of the FKTU bosses.

. The KCTU union leaders have been the main organizers of the independent trade union movement and the current strikes and protests. They have engaged in many militant actions and have braved government repression. They are not a revolutionary trend, however. The KCTU leaders have waged a struggle for union rights and improvements for the workers. But it also seems worried about the well-being of the capitalist exploiters. In the current strike wave, for instance, it seems they were worried about the doing heavy damage to the financial health of the big corporations where they were organized. A social-democratic group sympathizing with the KCTU's efforts reported that KCTU local union leaders stated that they were ending the strike at the Asia Motors plant in mid-January "in consideration of the adverse impact the strikes had on the company and regional economy." Of course, the more adverse the impact on the big companies, the stronger the pressure would be on them to drop the anti-worker laws. Such misguided reasoning was evidently behind the KCTU leadership's decision to generally call off the strikes without having secured any definite concessions from the government.

. The KCTU leaders have rightly called for international support. Unfortunately, they seem to be banking on the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, a group based on the principles of class conciliation, to which the KCTU recently affiliated. The ICFTU's official stands pledge allegiance to capitalist growth but pretend that some minor tinkering with capitalist growth plans will make them compatible with the workers' interests and ending poverty. Among the vice-presidents of this organization we find such labor traitors as AFL-CIO head John Sweeney; Fidel Velazquez, the notoriously corrupt boss of the government-tied CTM unions in Mexico; and a leader of the Israeli Histadrut, long-time defender of the Israeli tyranny over the Palestinian masses. This does not mean that the KCTU necessarily supports everything such labor traitors do. But whatever the differences among national union federations in the ICFTU, they are all supposed to uphold its basic outlook of seeking to reconcile with the capitalists.

. The South Korean workers have proven themselves a brave and formidable force. They have started to build organizations to advance their fight. They have established unions independent of the repressive South Korean rulers. But the task of establishing a trend that is really independent of the capitalist framework still lies ahead. This is an important task not only because the liberation of the workers lies with the overthrow of South Korean capitalism. The spread of consistent class organization will help strengthen the fighting capacity of the workers in the present day battles.

. Down with the anti-worker laws!

. Victory to the South Korean workers!

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