South Korean Restructuring: General Strikes, Plant Occupations, Battles With Police

Workers in South Korea have had a tumultuous year. Auto workers, textile workers, health care workers, bank workers, metalworkers, airline workers, and more have walked off the job repeatedly in response to calls for general strikes from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). Many of the protests have been marked by bloodshed when battles with riot police ensued.

Labor Notes spoke with Yu Kwang-Jun, an activist in the Daewoo Auto Workers Union (affiliated with the KCTU). Yu was touring the U.S. to protest the possible purchase of Daewoo by General Motors. We talked with him at the June 9 Charleston 5 rally in South Carolina, where he spoke against government repression of workers' struggles and called for international solidarity.

OCCUPIED

Yu said that Daewoo Motors was heavily hit by the 1997 Asian economic crisis. Last year the Korean-owned company had incurred so much debt that invitations were put out to foreign auto bidders, such as Ford and General Motors. The company announced bankruptcy, and General Motors entered a preliminary bid in June.

According to Yu, a "Management Normalization Committee" was formed to restructure the company, with the support of a moderate section of the union. Since December last year this restructuring has consisted of laying off more than 6,000 workers. The committee opposes militant action by the union, fearful of scaring off potential buyers.

But the layoffs sparked resistance from the union's militant wing. In February and April workers struck and occupied plants; the strikes were violently broken up by riot police. Images of bloodied strikers traveled around the world. The current government has stepped up repression of strikers, leading to an unprecedented number of arrests. "As a result of these strikes some of the leaders are wanted and are hiding in Catholic churches," Yu said.

Yu and a section of his union oppose GM’s takeover bid, believing that GM will lay off more workers and shut down some of the plants. Yu also fears that Daewoo workers will not get training on the job, leading to a deskilling.

GM has indicated that it will not purchase the biggest Daewoo facility, the outmoded Pupyong plant west of Seoul, which would entail more mass dismissals. Yu explains, "The cars produced there are very similar to GM cars. And the union is very strong in that plant." The police repression is an obvious attempt to destroy the militant part of the union, Yu believes.

PRESSURE TO LAY OFF

Since the Asian economic crisis, South Korea has been submitted to international pressures to undertake an aggressive economic restructuring. This has led to years of extensive workforce cutbacks and more restrictive labor laws. Pressure from the foreign business community is fierce.

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For example, Jeffrey Jones, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, has suggested that the Korean government adopt an easier layoff system, where illegal strikers can be fired. The government has adopted a new national security act and has shown its willingness to repress any labor struggles opposing the economic restructuring.

Yu explains that the tensions at Daewoo fit into this picture. The Management Normalization Committee plays up the distress felt by many workers that Daewoo might be shut down if GM refuses to go ahead with the purchase due to labor militancy.

MORE AND MORE CONCESSIONS

But, argues Yu, this position can only lead to an endless demand for more and more concessions. He supports the nationalization of Daewoo. He feels that many of the workers do not necessarily disagree with the militant wing of their union, but "workers are fearful of any other suggestion opposing the government’s plan. There is much fear."

While Yu was touring the U.S. for international support, Korean textile workers were battling with riot police seeking to break a twelve-day strike at a nylon plant. A few days later, on June 12, the KCTU called for a one-day general strike.

Although Yu was in the U.S. at the time, he said, "The Metal Workers [his federation] will follow the KCTU’S commitment to building the general strike. On February 28 the Metal Workers had a strike which involved 31,000 workers. There will be more workers on the street June 12!"

On July 5 another one-day general strike was announced, and plans are being made for a third, on July 22.

The intensity of the one-day general strikes has been dwindling—although having 20,000 workers from 23 workplaces involved in strike actions of all sorts on July 5 remains impressive. At Kia Motors, 10,000 stopped working for five hours. In downtown Seoul 10,000 workers held a rally.

Yu remains hopeful and enthused by his tour of the U.S. He concluded, "I have felt the power of solidarity."