Workers Gather in the Tens of Thousands to Commemorate the 123rd International Workers Day

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On May 1, workers gathered in Seoul and 14 other locations around the country to commemorate the 123rd International Workers' Day. In Seoul, affiliates of the Korean Confederation of Trade Union (KCTU), including the Korean Federation of Public Services and Transportation Workers' Unions (KPTU), the Korean Metal Workers' Union (KMWU), the Korean Government Employees' Union (KGEU) and the Korean Health and Medical Workers' Union (KHMU) held rallies earlier in the day and then conducted feeder marches, which converged on City Hall Plaza, where the main protest was held at 3:00pm.

The demands put forth by KCTU that day were: 1) Guarantee of public sector trade union rights and strengthening of democratic unionism, 2) abolition of mass dismissals, reinstatement of dismissed workers and regularization of the employment status of precariously-employed workers, 3) an end to attempts to close public medical clinics and strengthening of public healthcare and social services, 4) strengthening of the law penalizing work-related deaths and an increase in the minimum wage, 5) an end of the standoff between South and North Korea, South-North dialogue and the conclusion of a peace treaty.

Attended by an estimated 15,000 people, the main rally in Seoul was lively, including performances as well as speeches. Throughout the rally, workers 'performed' high-altitude protests on scaffolding set up at various places around the protest site to represent the actual high-altitude protests against mass dismissals, precarious employment and the repression of trade union rights, still underway in several regions around the country. A 'Declaration of Workers' Rights' was also read from the stage.

Comrades from several other countries participated in the May Day events alongside the Korean workers. Every year, KCTU runs a 'Leadership Education and Exchange in Asia Program for Young Unionists (LEAP)' at the time of May Day as a means to strengthen the democratic labor movement and facilitate exchange between unions in different countries in the region. LEAP participants, including comrades from the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand, shared in the May Day events and various other programs scheduled during the week they were in South Korea.

Near the end of the May Day rally, protesters attempted to cross the street to the site where the Ssangyong Motor workers' protest encampment had been demolished several days earlier. They were confronted by swarms of riot police, who prevented them from resetting up the camp using shields, police sticks and pepper spray.

While many tasks lay ahead of KCTU and the Korean labor movement, May Day was an important moment for workers to come together, recommit to our goals and reaffirm our unity both nationally and internationally.

Korean Public Sector Workers Demand Trade Union Rights

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On April 11, representatives from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and seven KCTU affiliates gathered in Gwanghwamun Plaza for a press conference to announce the launch of the 'KCTU Alliance to Win Public Sector Trade Union Rights, Stop Privatization and Defend Quality Public Services'. The establishment of this alliance represents a commitment on the part of democratic public sector unions to work more closely together in the face of the South Korean government's attack on public sector workers and the services they provide.

The seven affiliates participating in the Alliance include the Korean Federation of Public Services and Transportation Workers' Unions (KPTU), the Korean Government Employees' Union (KGEU), the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU), the Korean University Workers' Union (KUWU), the Korean Health and Medical Workers' Union (KHMU), the National Union of Media Workers (NUM) and the Democratic General Union.

The Alliance's main goals are to: 1) Win guarantee of public sector trade union rights and the reinstatement of unfairly dismissed public sector workers, 2) stop privatization and strengthen quality public services, 3) win regular employment for an abolish discrimination against precariously-employed workers in the public sector, 4) and win a system for determining public sector working conditions through labor-government negotiations.

In addition to the KCTU Alliance, coalitions including unions and civil society organizations have also recently been established to focus specifically on the issues of privatization and public sector precarious employment. These coalitions are working on issues such as the attempts to close public healthcare clinics, the government's plans to increase the involvement of private capital in transport and utilities (privatization), and the government's policy on public sector precarious employment, which leaves the vast majority of precarious workers facing job instability and discrimination in wages and working conditions.

One of the main issues, therefore, that the KCTU Alliance must focus on right now is that of trade union rights. By international labor standards, all workers, including public sector workers, possess the fundamental right to freely form and join trade unions and engage in union activities. Nonetheless, public sector workers in many countries are denied these rights, Korea being a representative example.

For the last several years, the South Korean government has been attacking public sector union's collective bargaining rights, requiring that employers at public institutions eliminate provisions in collective bargaining agreements considered 'irrational', including those calling for consultation with worker representatives on staffing issues, 'excessive' allowances for union activities during work hours, and benefits and wage provisions seen as too generous. Unions at dozens of public institutions that have resisted making these concessions have faced unilateral cancelled of their CBAs and pressure tactics aimed at getting members to disaffiliate. Hundreds members of the KGEU and KPTU, moreover, have been unfairly dismissed from their jobs in retaliation for protests opposing faulty government policy. In addition, since 2009 the government has refused to recognize the legal union status of the KGEU, making it an extra-legal organization. The government is also currently threatening to cancel the union registration of the KTU. In addition, nearly half of the 560,000 South Korean government employees, including fire fighters and police officers, are legally prohibited from forming and joining trade unions. All of these measures are in direct violation of international standards.

Recognizing the importance public sector trade union rights to the provision of quality public services, the ILO has agreed to review the global implementation and enforcement of Convention 151, which guarantees trade union rights the public sector, this June during the International Labor Conference (ILC). In the lead-up to the ILC, the KCTU Alliance is engaging in a range of activities to call attention to the government's violations and demand correction. These activities include a petition campaign calling for the ratification of Convention 151 and related core convention (ILO Convention 87 (Freedom of Association), and 98 [Collective Bargaining]) and an end to the repression of public sector unions and a national rally planned for June 1. In addition, the KCTU Alliance is sending a delegation to the ILC, which will participate in the formal ILC discussion, engage in outreach and protest actions and exchange information and experiences with public sector unions from around the world.

A New Shift Arrangement for Hyundai and Kia Workers

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Beginning on March 3, workers at Hyundai and Kia plants have worked under a new shift arrangement that reduces night work as well as overall working hours. For several decades, Hyundai, Kia and other Korean automakers generally operated on a double 10-hour shift system, which consisted of 8 hours of regular work and 2 hours of pseudo-regularized overtime work each shift. The second shift lasted through the night. The new system, however, calls for an 8-hour day shift and a 9-hour afternoon shift. The first shift runs from 6:40 am to 3:20 pm, while the second shift runs from 3:30 pm until 1:10 am.

Among OECD countries, the average working time for Korean workers tops the list. In 2011, the annual work hours for workers in Korea stood at 2,111 on average, a figure 419 hours higher than the 2010 OECD average of 1,692 hours. At Hyundai, workers paid by the hour worked 2,488 hours on average in 2010. 19% of such workers at Hyundai (or 5,151 persons) worked more than 2,700 hours that year.

One of the reasons behind the extremely long working hours is the wage structure used by Korean automakers. Management has kept the basic wage rate so low that workers have to work overtime and even on the weekends and holidays to make a decent living. Roughly 30 percent of compensation is composed by pay for overtime and holiday work. The new shift arrangement was, therefore, expected to reduce the level of total wages accordingly. For this reason there were drawn-out and painful negotiations before the new shift arrangement was introduced.

Management and labor union first agreement to end night work in 2002, but it took ten years from then on before the two sides could reach a final agreement on how this would occur. The union demanded that management adopt the new shift system without lowering wages, intensifying the work load or increasing employment insecurity. Management, on the other hand, wanted to maintain the level of production.

The two parties finally reached an agreement in 2012. They agreed to maintain production volumes at their current level at the time the agreement was concluded. They also agreed to maintain the total wage level. To do so, the union accepted an increase in line speeds by 30 units per hour at all factories (from 402 to 432 units for all of five factories in Ulsan and one plant in Asan) and made minor changes in work schedules to increase working hours. (Regular overtime work for the afternoon shift is actually one hour and twenty minutes.) On the other hand, the management agreed to invest in additional equipment needed to attain the higher level of productivity.

There are, however, several problems with this agreement. The additional investment that Hyundai management announced does not include a budget for hiring new workers. The global automaker has made a phenomenal amount of profits for the past few years. These profits were made possible in principal because of the use of numerous precarious workers on the production line and by squeezing parts suppliers and other service providers. Two in-house subcontracted workers have carried out a high-altitude protest atop a power transmission tower for more than 200 days and the numerous cases in which company has forced suppliers to agree to unfavorable supply contracts by using its advantageous bargaining position are well known.

Considering these facts, the decrease in working hours should be accompanied by an increase in employment, which would enable the redistribution of unfairly accrued profits back into the society. Hyundai has not agreed to do this.

Moreover, the line speed increase without regular overtime work means that in the case of an economic slowdown workers are likely to see their jobs threatened. If the market conditions changes and demand for Hyundai vehicles goes down, management is likely to consider the existing equipment, facilities and workforce as overcapacity. In such a situation, regular workers as well as precarious workers will find their jobs under attack.

The Development of a U.S-South Korea Global Partnership and its meaning for the South Korean Labor and Progressive Movement

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From May 6 to 9, President Park Geun-hye made her first trip to the United States since her inauguration. The highlight of the trip (save the sexual harassment scandal that has emerged surrounding her former spokesperson), came on May 7 when Park held a bilateral meeting with U.S. President Barak Obama in the White House Oval Office. The Park-Obama meeting drew widespread attention, coming as it did a midst a particularly high level of tension between the governments in Seoul and Pyeongyang. Many observers in the U.S. and South Korea expected the two leaders would layout a new blueprint for policy towards North Korea.

In general, these expectations proved to be correct. Regrettably, however, rather than discussing a new policy framework that might lead to the possibility for a breakthrough in the South-North stalemate, the two leaders essentially confirmed the currently existing hard-line stance towards North Korea and committed to increasing their military capacity vis-à-vis the already defensive nation. Further, the two leaders put for a vision for an upgrade of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, committing to latter's full integration into the former's plans to maintain its hegemony in the East Asian region.

Much of the substance of the bilateral meeting can be gleaned from the 'Joint Declaration in Commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the Alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States of America' released at the meeting's conclusion. This declaration proclaims the commitment of the two leaders to development of a U.S.-South Korea relationship described as "inextricably linked to regional and global security and economic growth" into a "global partnership", while also strengthening its original function as a military alliance. In so doing, the declaration demonstrates the momentum gained by Obama's so-called 'pivot to Asia' policy (of strengthening of military and economic intervention in the region) due to the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula, and South Korea's commitment to assuming the role of junior partner in the U.S.' regional and global strategy.

Cooperation on Policy towards and Military Pressure on North Korea

Through the Park-Obama meeting, it became clear that the U.S. and South Korean governments agree that sanctions and collective military pressure are more likely to bring about change in North Korea's attitude than negotiations. The Joint Declaration states that the two countries, 'Share the deep concern that North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missiles programs and its repeated provocations pose grave threats to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia.' Moreover, Obama's statement in a briefing after the meeting that, “The days when North Korea could create a crisis and elicit concessions...are over,” signals the United States' lack of willingness to change its policy framework. Park's call for the international community to, "Speak with one voice" about "North Korea's bad behavior" and "constantly send a firm message that they will not stand for it," struck a similar chord.

The two leaders also discussed a broad plan for strengthening their military alliance in order to back up cooperation on North Korea policy. The Joint Declaration reaffirms the United States' commitment "The defense of the Republic of Korea, including through extended deterrence and the full range of U.S. military capabilities, both conventional and nuclear." At negotiations concerning North Korea's nuclear program, held before the bilateral meeting, the two countries agreed to early development of a "tailored deterrence strategy" in relation to North Korea, suggesting plans to increase the reliability of the United States' nuclear umbrella and strengthen the joint U.S-South military force through restructuring of its command and weapons structure. In particular, the Joint Declaration implies the plan to include South Korea in the U.S.' Missile Defense System (MD), stating, "We are resolved to continue to defend our citizens against North Korea's provocations by strengthening our comprehensive, interoperable, and combined defense capabilities, to include shared efforts to counter the missile threat posed by North Korea and integrated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems." Based on this statement, it can be expected that South Korea's, as well as Japan's, integration into MD and the related issues of the conclusion of a South Korea-Japan information agreement and the strengthening of the two countries' conventional weapons capacity (such as through the introduction of precision-guided munitions or 'smart weapons') are likely to become heated issues in the wake of Park's trip to the U.S.

Development of a 'Global Partnership'

In addition to discussing the strengthening of their military alliance, Obama and Park discussed the development of the two countries' relationship into a 'global partnership'. As can be seen in the Joint Declaration, the U.S.-Korea FTA is a central piece of this plan. According to the declaration, through expanding trade and investment between the two countries, the FTA will not only bring economic profits to both countries, but will also, along with their military cooperation, enable the two country's to serve as a 'linchpin' to peace and security in the region.

Over the course of the past three administrations, the character of the U.S-Korea alliance has expanded and evolved to include more and more spheres of cooperation. The labeling of the alliance as a 'global partnership' signifies its development to include active involvement on a diverse range of issues including not only economics and culture, but also climate change, energy security, human rights, humanitarian aid, development, responses to terrorism, nuclear power safety and cyber security, with South Korea being brought in as a junior partner in the U.S.' global governance in these areas. This process has already been evident in the last several years in South Korea's dispatch of troops to Iraq to support the U.S. 'War on Terror', South Korean consent and aid to the realignment of the U.S forces in Korea based on the latter's Global Posture Review, the conclusion and enactment of the U.S.-Korea FTA and South Korea's hosting of the Nuclear Security Summit originally proposed by the U.S. as a means to maintain its nuclear hegemony.

Obama's pivot to Asia is a significant part of the U.S. strategy for exiting the global economic crisis. The pivot centers on a dual policy of engaging China (G2), but also developing the relationship with Japan and South Korea (G3) as guarantee against the possibility of conflict with former. This strategy appears on the one hand in the U.S.' attempt to respond to the changing balance of power resulting from China's growing economic power through changes in its military strategy and strengthening of its alliances with Japan and Korea and on the other by its plan to first include Japan and Korea in the Trans-Pacific Partnerships (TPP) and then develop the TPP into a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP) modeled on the U.S-Korea FTA. Despite the fact that the TPP was not discussed directly in the recent bilateral meeting, the Joint Declaration's positive evaluation of the U.S.-Korea FTA suggests that in the near future efforts will be made to coax Park into join the TPP negotiations.

Tasks for the Labor and Progressive Movement

As stated above, the Park-Obama bilateral meeting marked a commitment to a strengthening of military cooperation, continuation of the policy of sanctions and military pressure against North Korea and the development of a U.S-South Korea Global Partnership. We must be clear that the continuation of pressure against North Korea is not a solution to tensions on the Korean Peninsula and instead will only exacerbate them. The strengthening of the U.S. and South Korea's already highly superior military strength will likely provoke North Korea to seek further development of its nuclear and missile capacity. In addition, if South Korea begins to participate in MD and the TPP, this will instigate a response from China, expanding tensions throughout the region. So, what must the labor and wider progressive movement do to respond?

First, we must commit not merely to participate in the peace movement, but rather to reinvigorate and eventually lead it. Over the last few months, the U.S. and South Korea have been strengthening their combined conventional and nuclear capacity under the name of 'tailored deterrence'. Concretely, this means joint military exercises, an increased coverage under the U.S.' nuclear umbrella, South Korea's introduction of smart weapons, the establishment of Korean Air Missile Defense (KAMD) and attempts at MD forward deployment. The labor and progressive movement must call for an end to joint military exercises, stop the augmentation of U.S and South Korean troops and the introduction of U.S.-made weapons, oppose an increase in South Korea's share of payment for the stationing of U.S troops in South Korea and demand a withdrawal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and U.S. troops. At the same time, we must also respond to Park's attempt to make way for South Korea's own nuclear armament and export of nuclear power (not addressed directly in the bilateral talks). To make this possible we must care out education for union members and the wider public about the reality of U.S.-South Korea and South-North relations, and also build a wide alliance with other progressive forces in South Korea and throughout the Asian region.

Second, we must keep watch for signs that South Korea is moving towards joining the TPP negotiations and at the same time develop a comprehensive alternative to free trade agreements in general. Up to this point, the South Korean government has kept its distance from the TPP, choosing instead to focus on the possibility of South Korea-China and South Korea-China-Japan FTAs. Nonetheless, given that the U.S. government has made it clear that the TPP is a top priority it is likely South Korea will not be able to delay participation for long. In the past, the U.S.-Korea FTA was seen as a key to advancing the U.S.-South Korea alliance by both governments. Now, Japan's participation in the TPP negations is being seen in a similar vein as a means to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance in the face of conflict between Japan and China. Reflecting on these facts, it can be assumed that the commitment made by Park and Obama to forming a global partnership will justification for the U.S. to demand South Korea's participation in the TPP. The labor and progressive movement must put forth a clear critique of the likely consequences of this global partnership, education union members and the public on this critique and develop a multifaceted strategy for response.

The Park Geun-hye Government and the Crisis of Labor Movement

Posted in articles on May 18th, 2013 by pssp – Be the first to comment

- A criticism of the Park administration's labor policies

It has been three months since the right-wing Park Geun-hye administration took office, succeeding the former Lee Myung-bak administration. During the presidential election campaign period, Park was able to win the votes of people who were angered by the former government by emphasizing the center-left discourses of 'economic democratization' and 'welfare'. She took office at the Blue House, under such favorable titles as 'first female president since the Korean Constitution was established' and 'first president to earn a majority since the Amendment of the Constitution in 1987'.

President Park, however, soon betrayed herself when she gave important government positions to corrupt public officials, and conservative figures from the military and the judiciary. Her rosy promises to improve the situation of the economically and socially vulnerable and correct chaebol's (large conglomerates') corrupt practices of have faded from sight. In just two months expectations have turned to sour disappointment.

Economic Crisis and South Korea's

Chaebol Immediately after Park's election, workers at Hanjin Heavy Industries, Hyundai Heavy Industries, Ssangyong Motors and Hyundai-Kia Motor Group committed or attempted suicide. The direct cause of these deaths was economic, social and psychological hardship due to mass dismissals, precarious employment, and repression against trade union activities. The indirect cause was the frustration these workers felt when they recognized that the Park government has no real intention to solve these problems or punish big businesses that violate trade unions rights.

Large manufacturing companies in the electronics, automotive, shipbuilding and steelmaking industries bolster the export-led economy of South Korea, the world's eighth-largest trader. Under the export-centered economic policies of Park Chung Hee, the dictator who led South Korean and the 1960s and 70s and Park Geun-hye's father, Korean Chaebol enjoyed special favors and accelerated growth. The 'democratic' Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments continued these export and Chaebol-centered policies. During the unprecedented 1997~98 Asian Financial Crisis, these two governments faithfully followed the doctrines of neo-liberalism, allowing and supported the chaebol to institute structural adjustment programs, conduct massive layoffs and use countless precariously-employed workers and promoting the myth of 'too big to fail'. In addition, the government implemented measures to depreciate the Korean won. These measures enabled the chaebol to regain profitability and export competitiveness. At the same time, the police and other government authorities aggressively intervened in labor relations to weaken trade unions.

Ironically, the democratic governments were determined to implement and execute neo-liberal reform policies, lowering wages and deteriorating working conditions. Given that South Korea lags behind Japan in terms of technological competitiveness and also behind China in terms of price competitiveness, Korean businesses responded by further strengthening the low-wage economic structure. Caught at the bottom of a system of multi-level subcontracting that characterizes Korean manufacturing, workers at small and medium-sized businesses suffer low wages, long working hours and high labor intensity, while large businesses at the top of the supply chain enjoy disproportionate benefits. In 2008, financial crisis shocked the global economy in 2008. In South Korea, the newly-elected Lee Myung-bak administration implemented undisguised business-friendly policies, accelerating all the trends described above. As a result, Korean workers now work longer than any other OECD countries with the majority of them making an hourly wage that is slightly more than what is need to buy a Big Mac. On the other hand, Samsung Electronics, Hyundai, Kia and other large Korean companies have been able to emerge as global players boasting ever-larger profits by taking advantage of the financial crisis. Lee Gun-hee of Samsung and Chung Mong-koo of Hyundai, whose images are recall Rockefeller, Carnegie and other robber barons of the gilded age, wield omnipotent power, even ignoring the rules of free market capitalism.

Labor Policies of the Park Geun-hye Administration

The situation described above forms the backdrop against which both conservative and liberal parties came up with 'economic democratization' and 'welfare' as the main concepts in their platforms during the 2012 general and presidential elections. An economy highly dependent on exports, strong dominance by the chaebol and the ongoing economic crisis leave Park few options, however. Moreover, the government and the ruling party have to care for the interests of large businesses and the wealthy population because it is from these groups that their support traditionally comes. Symbolically, President Park demonstrated her intention relying on the chaebol for an exit to the crisis when she let the largest-ever business delegation, including Lee Gun-hee and Chung Mong-koo, accompany her on her trip to the U.S. earlier this month.

Given these circumstances, the labor policies of the Park government can hardly be labor-friendly even though she loves to use the title "president that cares for people's livelihoods." In fact, the policies of the current administration resemble those of the former Lee government more in the area of labor than in any other field. The Lee government presented raising employment rates as the first goal of labor policies, pursuing 'flexicurity' programs. Likewise, the Park government has set as a her top priority raising the employment-population ratio to 70 percent.

The key idea behind flexicurity, which includes some aggressive labor market policies, is to increase employment by making the wage and employment conditions of regular workers more flexible, expanding working hour elasticity through flexible work hour schemes and working time accounts, creating part-time jobs. The policies for a flexible labor market have evolved from the introduction of mass dismissals (flexibility in employment) to agency work (flexibility in employment relationship) to job sharing (flexibility in wages and working hours). To raise the employment-population ratio to 70 percent, work-life balance policies for women are implemented in combination with programs to address the low fertility rate and Korea's aging society. The government sees the expansion of part-time jobs and discretionary work as an effective policy tool to prevent women workers from leaving the labor market. The logic here is based on belief that women leave the market when their domestic duties intensify as part of the natural life cycle because the current labor market is mainly organized with long-working-hour, full-time jobs and that part-time work is therefore preferable. In fact however, the measures planned by the Park administration will lead to the expansion of short-time, low-wage, precarious jobs for women workers.

Prioritizing measures to raise the employment-population ratio means pushing respect for basic trade union rights and healthy labor relations aside. The Park government has clear demonstrated that it has no intention to amend current labor laws, which allow claims for damage and provisional seizure of assets against unionists in retaliation for union activities and charges against unionists for obstruction of business and ban employer payment of salaries to full-time union officers, industrial actions taken by minority unions and political activities by government employees and teachers. While the government emphasizes the importance of tripartite committees, its true intention is to isolate and weaken the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) by forming an alliance with the business-friendly Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) just as the Lee government did.

In addition, the government has announced no plans for addressing mass dismissals or agency work, the root causes behind the deaths of workers at Ssangyong, Hyundai and Kia. On the contrary, the ruling party has presented a bill to legalize in-house subcontracting practices to the National Assembly, and is working on policies to link the wage peak system with the extension of the retirement age. Privatization of the railway and energy industries, closure of a public medical clinic, and other programs to deteriorate the public sector are also underway.

The Labor Movement's Response

Having been continuously defeated under the neo-liberal reform initiatives of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments and the attack of the Lee Myung-bak government, the Korean working class is now in a serious predicament. The labor movement is facing the challenge of confronting the Park government in the midst of deepening economic crisis.

Many of the traditional union leadership, workers who gained their experience as union officers during the 1987 Great Workers' Struggle, are now aged and about to retire, while the new generation of workers is largely unorganized. Divisions and conflicts within the working class based on business size, employment status, gender and nationality are growing more extreme, yet the democratic trade union movement, as not been able to put forth wage and employment policies that can reduce these divisions and increase working class unity. Above all, the KCTU, which is responsible for representing the entire labor movement in Korea, is faced with significant external and internal challenges. Externally, progressive parties, formed as a result of a decade-long effort to organize the working class as a political force, have collapsed. Internally, the KCTU has been unable to elect a leadership due to disagreements between various political forces.

In order to overcome its current predicament, the Korean labor movement first needs to win real victories in ongoing disputes so as to rebuild the trust and confidence of the union membership. Going forward, it must renew its work on the ground with the mindset of opening up a new gate for democratic unionism. To develop new rank-and-file officers and promote leadership among the new generation, we must come up with multifaceted strategies to aggressively organize unorganized workers and truly represent precarious, low-wage workers rather than merely supporting the defensive fights of existing trade unions.

To this end, we must develop a strategy to change the chaebol&#45led economic system. This means transforming the vertical hierarchy of the multi-layer subcontracting and the split labor market. To do this we must develop solidarity wage and employment strategies that include workers in subcontracting companies at the industrial and sectoral levels. Strategic organizing campaigns in key industries and industrial complexes that play pivotal roles in supply chains or the manufacturing basis of specific sectors will also be part of this process. In the process of these struggles and organizing campaigns, we need to revise the basic principle that 'liberation of the working class must be won by the power of the working class itself'. If we can commit firmly to the ideals of liberation and transformation, we will have a chance to turn the current crisis of labor movement into an opportunity. If we cannot, the crisis will remain and deepen as such.

Evaluating the Presidential Election – What the Labor Movement should take away from Park Geun-hye’s Victory

Posted in articles on January 10th, 2013 by pssp – Be the first to comment

On December 19, the ruling conservative New Frontier Party (NFP) candidate Park Geun-hye was elected as South Korea's next president. Park received 51.6% of the popular vote beating opposition Democratic Unity Party (DUP) candidate Moon Jae-in by over 3% points and becoming the first presidential candidate to win with majority support since the introduction of direct elections in 1987.

The election results dealt a grave blow to the labor movement and other progressive forces in South Korea. Given popular dissatisfaction with the current Lee Myung-bak administration, it is hard for unionists and activists within and outside of Korea to come to terms with the fact that Park, the daughter of the 1960s and 70s dictator Park Chung-hee, won with such a wide margin. To contribute to the process of regrouping, this article analyzes the reasons for Park's victory and what the election results mean for left-progressive in Korea.

Two Candidate Race, High Voter Turnout

At 75.8%, the voting rate in this presidential election was the highest it has been since the beginning of the 21st century. Many commentators attribute the high turnout to the fierce competition leading up to the elections. A truly two-person race was held for the first time in Korean elections history, with the NFP uniting behind Park early on and the non-affiliated liberal Ahn Cheol-su and the Unified Progressive Party's (UPP) Lee Jung-hee dropping out to allow for the DUP's Moon Jae-in to stand alone against Park. Analysts believe that conservative voters were particularly motivated to go to the polls because of the threat presented by a united opposition. Older voters in particular, turnout in high numbers to vote for Park

The Liberals' Ineptitude

Nonetheless, Park's success should not be attributed primarily to voters' age or the sense of urgency felt by conservatives. One of the main reasons Park was able to win, despite considerable dissatisfaction with the Lee administration, is that she spoke to voters' immediate concerns and at the same time distinguished herself from Lee Myungbak.

Throughout the election race, Moon criticized the Lee administration for its role in increasing social polarization and its authoritarian style. In response, Park emphasized the economic and political inexperience of the liberal Roh Moohyun administration, which preceded the Lee administration, and of which Moon is a product. For the majority of Korean people, the problems of increasing social polarization and worsening living conditions are not so much associated with one or the other political party, but rather a fact of life that has been consistent over the last ten years. Moon Jae-in's election's campaign message, which emphasized the need for a change in the ruling party, did not speak to this experience. On the other hand, Park, In addition to emphasizing the failings of liberal administrations, spoke about expansion of the middle-class, increasing welfare and political reform, touching on issues close to people's everyday lives and highlighting they ways in which she is different from the widely disliked Lee. In addition, by invoking the myth of rapid economic development deeply associated with her father, Park was able to ride on many common people's desire for a solution to the current economic crisis.

Conversely, Moon failed to put forth a coherent message other than one about the need for an end of NFP rule. This ineptitude, as much as Park's successful messaging, has to be blamed as one of the main reasons for Park's success. In other recent elections, including the municipal government elections in June 2010 and the by-elections for Seoul mayor in 201l, the liberals were able to make gains due to widespread dissatisfaction with the Lee administration. In the lead up to the presidential election, however, liberal forces failed to critically examine the mistakes of past liberal administrations and instead put forth contradictory positions. The DUP, for instance criticized Lee for forcing passage of the U.S.-Korea FTA and called for its renegotiation, failing to acknowledge the it was Roh Moohyun who had pursued FTA negotiations in the first place. Having no plan for fundamental reform of South Korea's neoliberal, export-based, conglomerate-centered economic structure, or its unequal and dependent relationship with the United States, the DUP simply heaped criticism on Lee Myung-bak. As such, they failed completely in shaking the criticism of Roh Moohyun and his follows as economic and political amateurs and in presenting themselves as a real potential alternative to Lee.

Progressives' Ineffective Response

Sadly, rather than positioning themselves as critiques of both mainstream parties, the main 'so-called' progressive party, the UPP and many other progressives followed along the path carved by the DUP's ineptitude. Like the DUP, these forces repeated the hollow criticisms of Lee Myung-bak the individual, failing to put for a concrete and principled critique of the policies of the ruling class. Light parodies, like those likening Lee Myung-bak to a rat, and a few words here and there about workers' rights within the ruling-class dominated discussion of 'economic democratization' took the place of a fundamental critique of Korea's economic and political structure.

In addition, instead of explaining clearly how their platforms were different that Park Geun-hye's or what they would do to reform the government, the UPP focused on Park's family history and position. Making recourse to this vague sort of demonization removed from common people's everyday realities, UPP leaders and their supporters stayed within their comfort zone rather than capturing the attention of the wider public. Thus, the election campaign of Lee Jung-hee did little to expand their base of support.

This tendency for the main progressive party to follow in the pattern set by the liberal block is not new. Already in 2008 the Korean Democratic Labor Party (KDLP, the UPP's predecessor), put forth the platform of uniting with the liberal opposition against Lee Myung-bak. Instead of shining a light on the liberal's contradictions, they turned a half-blind eye to them, focusing on the goal of achieving a few seats in the National Assembly and expanding political power. Given this strategy, the KDLP and the UPP after it focused on mobilizing unions and other mass organizations -
their base of support - to protests focusing on issues set by the liberals, rather than focusing on campaigns around issues they thought should be central.

It is little known outside of progressive circles within South Korea, but two left-progressive candidates also ran on platforms criticizing the UPP's alliance - Soyeon Kim, a leader among female irregular workers, and Kim Sunja, a cleaning worker and former proportional representative candidate for the New Progressive Party, which split from the KDLP in 2009. These two candidates, however failed to rally together various other left-progressive forces and ended up with only .1% and .2% of the vote.

Progressives need to reflect on the fact that the message focusing on the faults of Lee Myung-bak did not resonate in a meaningful way to the majority of Korean, voters and thus was not enough to lead to a change in administration. The lesson here is that without putting forth a clear and principled analysis of Korea's economic and political circumstances, and putting forth an independent platform based on that analysis it is possible for progressives to appear as an alternative and therefore impossible for us to win wider grassroots support.

Regrouping for a renew Struggled in 2013

With the conservative turn by UPP and other progressive forces, the divisions within the progressive movement and Park's election, the labor and wider social justice movement in South Korea is at a low point. The despair felt by many has manifested in a chain of worker suicides in the wake of the elections.
Unfortunately, we cannot give ourselves much time to recover. It is likely that Park will push forward symbolic reforms during the transition period and in the beginning of her administration, that will distinguish her from Lee, such as measures to alleviate social polarization, support for the middle class and political reforms. Without a proper response, the labor movement and wider progressive forces are likely to lose even more ground in this situation. We need an awakening that will give us the clarity with which to respond.

In order to ready ourselves for a fight against this new government, our first task is to strength the KCTU. Next, activists who agree on the need to overcome deepened ideological divisions within the labor, focus on rebuilding or bases at the worksite level and strengthen the democratic labor movement need to regroup based on locality and industry. These activists need to take up the work of concretely analyzing the government and capital's strategy, in the context of economic crisis, in each industry and at each workplaces, and use this analysis as a basis for building a national front for a renewed struggle. In addition, we need to critically evaluate the old and worn methods of unionism and find means of reform.

Finally, given the loss of the workers' and wider progressive moment's traditional left identity after the formation of the Unified Progressive Party, we need now, more than ever, a return to a class-based politics located firmly in the struggle against new liberalism and for social and economic justice. Based on these principles, we must focus on discussion and debate at the local level to establish a unified strategy for confronting the Park administration.

In Memory of the Deceased

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With Grief, Anger and Determination. . .

Within only a week of the election of New Frontier Party presidential candidate Park Geun-hye, four workers took their lives with their own hands. A fifth died from heart complications experienced while attending his comrades' funeral. The death of these workers is an expression of despair felt at having struggled for years against injustice and repression only to be faced with the election of the daughter of a dictator and the prospects of five more years of conservative rule.

The first death was Gang-seo Choe, an organizer for the Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction Chapter of the Korean Metal Workers' Union (KMWU(. Choe had struggled valiantly with his fellow workers against Hanjin's plans for mass dismissal, finally winning reinstatement last year. After Hanjin workers returned to work on November 9, however, the company began sending them back out on unpaid leave, and persisted with a lawsuit claiming 15.8 billion won in damages from workers who had participated in the struggle. On the morning of December 21, Choe declined to take part in the morning outreach that was usually part of his daily routine. Instead, he hung himself in the union office, leaving a note denouncing Hanjin's repression and lamenting, "Nothing will be possible for the next five years." A father of two young sons, he was 35 years old.

The following day on December 22, Yun-nam Lee, Vice Director of Organizing for the KMWU Hyundai Heavy Industries In-house Subcontractor Chapter also took his life. Lee had participated in the union's establishment in 2003 and struggled fervently for the elimination of discrimination against irregular workers. Lost in grief when he heard of Choe's death, and blaming himself for having been able "unable to help" Choe and other struggling workers like him, Lee threw himself from the top of an apartment building. He was only 42.

The same day, Gyeog-nam Choe, an activist with the Seoul Alliance for Democracy, Public Welfare, Peace, Reunification and Self-Determination also took his own life. A former student activist, Choe was only 41 when he died.

Only three days later, Ho-il Lee, Chair of the Hanguk University of Foreign Studies Branch of the Korean University Workers' Union also committed suicide after struggling against the university's repression for many years. Having help to organize a strike in 2006 as the union's policy director, Lee was illegally dimissed. He won reinstatement in Supreme Court decision in 2009, but the university administration refused to reinstate him to his original post, instead ordering his transfer to Daecheon. He hung himself in his union's office on Christmas day, taking his on life at the age of 47.

The following day, Vice Chair of the Hanguk University of Foreign studies union Gi-yeon Lee collapsed from heart failure and passed away after surgery failed to revive him. He had been keeping watch at Ho-il Lee's memorial alter. He was 49 years old.

Coming on the heals of the deaths of 23 Ssangyong Motor workers and the suicide of a Yoosung Enterprises union member last December 4, these five sudden deaths have brought renewed shock and grief to the Korean labor movement. While our hearts are made heavy by these tragedies, however, we must not let our spirits be crushed. It is now more important than ever that we find our will to fight and come together to do so.

The Research Institute for Alternative Workers Movements and People's Solidarity for Social Progress express our heartfelt condolences to the family, friends and comrades of the deceased. We pledge to move forward in the face of hardship to build a strong and united movement. We commit ourselves to fight until we win an end to mass dismissals, the regularization of all irregular workers and respect for all workers' fundamental labor rights so that the souls of the deceased may finally rest in peace.


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The Ongoing Struggle of Hyundai Motor Irregular Workers

January 5 marked Hyundai Motor irregular workers Byeong-seung Choe and Ui-bong Cheon's 81th day of protest atop a power transmission tower located at the Hyundai Motor Ulsan pant. Irregular workers at Hyundai's plants in Asan, Jeonju and Ulsan have carried out partial strikes on November 29 and December 5, a full strike on December 7, and two more partial strikes on December 12 and 14 in conjunction with this high-altitude protest.

Hyundai management has attempted to bring in scabs during the strikes to keep production going, forcing the striking workers to make efforts to block the scabs' entry. In response, Hyundai management has brought in contracted security forces who have rained down violence upon the workers. Many workers have been taken to the hospital for severe injuries, including bloodied faces and broken fingers. Of 22 workers brought to the hospital on December 14, 7 were admitted for treatment.

While violently suppressing the workers' struggle, Hyundai management continues to insist on its proposal for new hires as an alterative to regularization of irregular workers, a proposal already rejected by the Hyundai irregular workers union. In a special bargaining session held on December 13, management proposed to raise the number of new hires from the original proposal of 3000 to 3500. Moreover, management said it would begin on December 17 with the hire of 420 new workers, even posting job announcements throughout its plants and distributing applications through subcontracting companies.

In response to protests from the Hyundai regular workers union, management agreed to put off acceptance of applications, but it has persisted in its position that it will only make new hires and not regularize the irregular workers. The company insists that a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, which found that the employment status of Byeong-seung Choe, an illegally hired dispatch worker, must be changed to direct hire, applies only to Choe as an individual, and says it will wait to hear the results of suits filed by other workers.

If workers are rehired per Hyundai's plans, it would mean that they are not recognized as illegally employed dispatch workers who should, by the Supreme Court ruling, be taken on as directly hired workers. The workers' years of work for Hyundai would not be recognized. They would also forfeit their rights to back pay.

The number of workers participating in the struggle has grown over the course of several strikes reaching as many as 1,000. This is a much higher level of participation than at the start of the high-altitude protest, when only a fraction of that number came out to rallies. Solidarity from the regular workers' union has also increase, with delegates and worksite activists helping in efforts to block scabs from entering the factories.

On January 3, however, the Ulsan District Court accepted Hyundai Motor's application for an injunction against the workers engaged in the high-altitude protest. The same day, court officers visited the protest site to deliver a notice ordering the workers to clear the area. In this situation, solidarity is more important than ever.

On December 13, over a hundred organizations, including PSSP, held a press conference, at which we announced a declaration of support for the Hyundai irregular workers' strike. This sort of solidarity must grow. In addition, the attitude of the regular workers' union will play an important role in determining the struggle's outcome. Only with solidarity between regular and irregular workers will victory be possible.

The Struggle against Privatization must go on

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December 8 Protest against Privatization

"Stop privatization!" "Strengthen quality public services!"
These were the slogans chanted by some 3000 thousand workers who braved the snow and cold weather to gather at Seoul Plaza last December 8 in protest against President Lee Myung-bak's end-of-term dive to privatize public services. Sang Moo Lee, President of the Korean Public & Social Services and Transportation Workers' Union .KPTU), captured the thought of the crowd aptly when he stated, "More than this cold weather, it is the biting wind of privatization wrecking havoc in the lives of common people that makes us shiver," in his opening speech.

A Global Trend

Public sector privatization, promoted by international economic institutions like IMF and World Bank, has become a global trend over the last thirty years. Since the advent of the global financial crisis this trend has accelerated with government use claims about the need for austerity to justify the sale of public corporations and outsourcing of public services. As was recently recognized at the 29th Congress of the global union federation Public Services International (PSI), however, "privatization. . . (is) often used to drive down wages and conditions of workers and generate profit for the private sector" and, by raising costs and limiting access, is depriving "millions of people#46; #46; #46; of their fundamental human rights" (PSI, Programme of Action, 16, 31).

South Korea's Anti-Privatization Struggle

South Korea is no exception to the global trend. Over the past several years, successive administrations have sought to privatize utilities, rail transport and other public services. They have, however, met determined resistance from South Korean labor unions, many of whom are members of PSI. Most notably, in 2002 a joint strike by the Korean Power Plant Industry Union, the Korean Railway Workers' Union and the Korean Gas Corporation Union succeeded in stopping the Kim Daejung administration's plans for direct privatization in these areas. For many years afterwards, the government was unable to pursue blatant sale of public corporations, although it did pursue privatization through roundabout means, such as allowing the entry of private companies into utility provision and the contracting of local public services to private companies.

With the advent of the Lee Myung-bak administration, however, privatization got a second wind. Under his policy of 'the advancement of public enterprises', Lee sought to facilitate the entry of private corporations into gas distribution and expand privately owned power plants, calling these changes the 'introduction of competition to eradicate irrationality' in public corporation management.

End-of-Term Privatization Drive

With his term coming to an end, Lee has sped up privatization efforts even further. Last February, the right to operate Cheongju International Airport for the next 30 years was contracted to a partially U.S.-owned holding company for the bargain price of 25.5 billion won .roughly 15 million USD). The Lee administration has also been pursuing sale of shares of the Incheon International Airport Corporation and recently announced plans to sale Incheon Airport's duty free shops to private capital. Recently, it also announced removal of legal and structural barriers to make way for private operation of the KTX rapid transit train from Suseo to Busan. The construction of the rapid-transit rail line and the private railway operator's use of the government-owned tracks would be subsidizing with taxpayers' money. In as much as private companies are sure to put money-making above security and public access, airport and rail privatization has been heavily criticized as sacrificing safe and user-friendly transport for capitalist profits. Workers and community members have also been fighting the administration's plans to allow for-profit hospitals and the contracting of water provision to private companies fearing the reduction of access to quality and affordable healthcare and clean drinking water.

Prospects under Park Geun-hye

The protest on December 8 was organized by several coalitions of labor unions, social movement organizations and community groups, which have been formed to fight privatization on all fronts. Unfortunately, the work of these groups is far from over, especially considering the recent election of the conservative Park Geun-hye as South Korea's next president. While Park shied away from the subject during her election campaign due to negative public opinion, her past statements have indicated her support for privatization, and numerous news outlets have predicted that pro-privatization forces in the administration will gain confidence from her victory. Moreover, clauses in the U.S.-Korea FTA, pushed through the National Assembly last year, which allow foreign investors to sue the government for 'anti-competition' policies, will make privatization irreversible once it is achieved.

The anti-privatization struggle will have to get several notches stronger in 2013. To make this possible, unions and other anti-privatization forces must begin putting forth concrete alternatives to privatization that make the provision of quality public services financially and structurally viable. They must also remember the power they wielded in 2002 when public sector unions in three industries went on strike together, and seek to connect knit their struggles in to a global anti-privatization movement. Only with unity and determination will the labor movement be able to defeat privatization and defend the people's right to quality public services during the next 5 years of conservative rule.

Irregular Education Support Worker Engage in First Ever Strike at Korean Public Schools

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Korea Education Support Workers – Precariously Employed, Underpaid and Ill-treated

In South Korea, public schools are among the many public sector workplaces that employ a high percentage of irregularly (precariously) employed workers. Public school irregular workers account for more than 40% of the total irregularly employed public sector irregular workforce. These workers, who serve school lunches, run school libraries, aid science labs, assist disabled students, teach physical education, run after-school programs and perform administrative functions, are directly and indirectly responsible for the education of Korea’s elementary, middle and high school students. Nonetheless, for several years no law has existed to define their status. This has meant that various education authorities including the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, local offices of Education and the administrators of individual schools continuously attempted to pass responsibility for their working conditions off to one another.

Under individual contracts with school principles, irregular education support workers, the vast majority of who are women, have suffered from low wages, high levels of work intensity and an overall lack of respect at work for the last twenty years. Any time there is a decrease in school enrollment or a lack of funds, these workers face the threat of dismissal. They are also regularly required to do personal tasks for superiors while only receiving a fraction of the salaries made by school administrators, who hold the rank of public servant, and regularly employed schoolteachers. While teachers and public servants are given bonus and pay raises based on experience, irregular education support workers have no pay scale. This means that no matter how many years they have worked, their salaries remain the same. Public schools, which should model the values of equality and respect, are instead sites of gender discrimination and the violation on labor rights.

Irregular Education Support Worker Organizing

The vast majority of education support workers went without union representation for many years. This changed in 2011 with the election of progressive education commissioners in Seoul, Gangwon Province, Northern Jeolla Province, Southern Jeolla Province and Gyeonggi Province. At this time, workers’ desire for change, the potential for forward movement represented by the education commissioner elections, and the efforts of unionists came together in a massive organizing drive. Union membership grew to 40,000 in roughly a year.

While these numbers are impressive, this organizing effort has not been with out its problems. Various factions within the labor movement have engaged in competitive organizing such that education support workers are now members of four different unions – the Irregular Education Support Workers Division of the KCTU-affiliated Korean Public & Social Services and Transportation Workers’ Union (KPTU), the KCTU-affiliated National Irregular Education Support Workers’ Union, the KCTU-affiliated Seoul General Union and the non-affiliated Korean Women’s Union. Clearly, overcoming divisions and building unity is an urgent task.

The Fight in 2012

The main demand of education support workers is that local offices of education and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology acknowledge their responsibility as education support workers real employers and engage in collective bargaining with them. This is seen as the best way to change the current irrational system, under which education support workers are contracted with, and therefore tied to the will of individual school principles.

Education workers have had some success in getting this demand met. In February of 2012, the Ministry of Employment and Labor stated its opinion that, “The responsibility for collective bargaining with irregular education support workers’ unions falls with the relevant offices of education.” The Lee Myung-bak administration has also acknowledge that education offices should be seen as the real employers of education support workers.

Local education authorities have continued to avoid negotiations, however. To up the pressure, the Korean Women’s Union, the KPTU Irregular Education Support Workers Division and the Korean Irregular Education Support Workers’ Union formed a coalition and began planning a collective response. Leaders of each union carried out a hunger strike and sit-in protest in front of the National Assembly from October 24 to November 3. On the last day of the sit-in protest 10,000 workers gathered in Seoul for a massive protest, at which they called for legislation to regularize their status as public sector education workers, the introduction of a pay scale and direct employment under the Education Commissioner. A week later on November 9, 16,000 union members at 1400 schools around the country carried out the first ever strike of education support workers, followed by a second strike on November 23 in Northern Chungcheong Province. Protests continued throughout December. Unfortunately, outside of the 10 regions where progressive education commissioners are in office, education authorities continue to refuse to negotiate.

Tasks for 2013

The strike carried held on November 9 was the first ever strike of education support workers in Korean history. The fact that education support workers have organized and gained the confidence to strike so quickly is an amazing achievement. The struggle of education support workers is also significant as an example of women workers’ collective action. Education support workers succeeded at the end of 2012 in minimally improving their conditions and also getting a budget proposal to cover the introduction of a pay scale introduced in the National Assembly. Sadly, this proposal was thrown out in the wake of conservative Park Geun-hye’s election as South Korea’s next president.

Nonetheless, the struggle in 2012 was a giant leap forward, and has created the basis for an ever more determined struggle this year. The expansion of membership, unity among the various education support workers’ unions, achievement of regular employment and improvement of working conditions are all important tasks for 2013.