The Significance and Prospects of the Hyundai Motor Irregular Workers

Posted in articles on September 11th, 2012 by pssp – 1 Comment

Hyundai irregular workers' protest

In house Subcontactors, Illegal Dispatch
Roughly 40,000 directly employed regular workers and 10,000 irregular in)house subcontracted workers work for the Hyundai Motor Company. The in)house subcontracted workers, who do the same work as regular workers inside Hyundai Motor plants, but are formally employed by other companies, are in fact no different from temp agency or ‘dispatch’ workers. Under South Korean law, dispatch employment is prohibited in the manufacturing sector. By law, therefore, Hyundai Motor should directly employ and ‘regularize’ these workers. Hyundai Motor management, however continued to refuse the regularization of the irregular worker in its factories.

In 2003, Hyundai Motor irregular workers formed their own union and have since fought to win regularization and the abolition of illegal dispatch employment. Currently, irregular worker union chapters affiliated to the Korean Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU) exist at the Hyundai Motor plants in Ulsan, Asan and Jeonju.

Hyundai Motor’s Obstinacy
In 2004, the Ministry of Labor found that 127 in)house subcontractors employing 9,234 workers at Hyundai plants were in fact illegal dispatch agencies. Energizes by this ruling, the Hyundai irregular workers struggle moved forward with full force. This struggle involved the occupation of Factory 5 at the Hyundai Plant in Ulsan, the self)immolation of one worker and the self)hanging of another, and yet the company did not waiver in its position.

In 2010, a historic Supreme Court decision found that Hyundai Motor irregular worker Byeong)seung Choe was an illegally dispatched worker and should, therefore, be regularized. Still, Hyundai management refused to budge, calling the verdict “not the final decision” and even going so far as to make a second appeal to the Supreme Court. In response, the Hyundai irregular workers occupied Factory 1 of the Ulsan Plant from November 15 to November 25, 2010 demanding regularization. At this time, irregular worker In)hwa Hwang also set himself on fire in protest.

Hyundai Motor’s efforts to crush the irregular workers’ struggle have been extreme. Over the last ten years some 200 workers have been fired and the company has made claims for damages and provisional seizure of assets against union members worth several billion won (several million dollars). It has also sent managers and hired thugs to violently suppress protests.

The Legal Basis for Regularization
Finally, in February of this year the Supreme Court issued its final verdict finding that “Hyundai Motor has the responsibility to directly hire union member Byeong)seung Choe, given that he is indeed an illegally dispatched worker.” Hyundai, however, refused to follow the Supreme Court’s decision, claiming “because Byeong)seung Choe has been dismissed, the company has no obligation to rehire him,” and filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC). The NLRC found that Choe had been unfairly dismissed, but Hyundai has not rehired him, nor has it regularized any other in)house subcontracted workers.

The main content of the Supreme Court decision is as follows: “Due to the particular characteristics of Hyundai Motor’s automated)flow production method, which uses a conveyer system, the various steps of the manufacturing and assembly process must be carried out continuously without stop and, thus, cannot be independent. Given the fact that the in)house subcontractors in fact dispatch their workers to Hyundai Motor and that these workers are directed and supervised by Hyundai Motor, the contract between the in)house subcontractors and Hyundai Motor falls in the category of a contract for dispatch labor.” Thus, the Supreme Court recognized in)house subcontracting as illegal dispatch.

In addition, an amendment to the Act on the Protection, Etc. of Temporary Agency Workers, which went into effect on August 2, 2012, stipulates that in cases where illegally dispatched work is verified, the parent company must directly employ the related workers even if they have only worked for a single day. The Ministry of Labor and Supreme Court decisions, the new revision of the Temporary Agency Worker Act and the general state of public opinion are all highly disadvantageous to Hyundai Motor.

The Deceitful Proposal of 3,000 New Hires
Given this situation, Hyundai Motor finally put forward a proposal to directly hire 3,000 of its in)house subcontracted workers as new employees by 2016. 3,000 hires, however, is far less than the full number of in)house subcontracted workers. Moreover, 2,800 regular Hyundai workers are scheduled to retire by 2016. This means that Hyundai Motor’s proposal amounts to little more than filling the slots vacated by retiring regular workers with some of the irregular workers, excluding those who have been dismissed. The slots left open by the irregular workers who become directly employed would simply be filled by more in)house subcontracted workers. In other words, Hyundai Motor’s proposal amounts, not to the regularization of irregular jobs, but the passing of irregular jobs from one set of workers to another. It is Hyundai Motor’s plan to change the role of in)house subcontracted workers so that they will not qualify as dispatch workers by the above definition and, thus, free itself of the debate on illegal dispatch.

At the same time, Hyundai Motor has carried out a campaign of terror against the irregular workers. In one recent incident, managers and hired thugs beat and kidnapped officers of the KMWU Hyundai Motor Irregular Workers Branch, later leaving them outside factory grounds. The irregular workers’ struggle has continued in the face of these hardships, receiving considerable solidarity from unions around the country who have gathered in front of the Ulsan plant to hold solidarity protests.

Seeds of Division
Meeting with the irregular workers’ union through the ‘Parent Company)Subcontractor Workers Alliance’, the regular workers union made a promise to work collectively to achieve the regularization of the Hyundai irregular workers. Last April, the Alliance put forth the following six demands: 1) regularization of all irregular workers employed by in)house subcontractors; 2) immediate withdrawal of all charges, arrest warrants, dismissals, claims for damages and provisional seize of assets against in)house subcontracted workers in relation to their struggle; 3) a public apology for the illegal acts and repression against the irregular workers; 4) an agreement between labor and management to discontinue any further use of irregular workers, 5) an immediate end to structural adjustment related to irregular workers, and 6) adherence to labor laws with regards to the three irregular workers’ union chapters and non)interference in union activities.

In fact, however, the regular workers union has come under heavy criticism failing to stick by these demands. Engaged with Hyundai management around its own collective bargaining, the regular workers union accepted the proposal for 3,000 new hires. It even carried out a campaign to convince the irregular workers to go along with the proposal, leading to divisions among the irregular workers. Worrying that if they persist in struggle they might not even win fulfillment of the promise of 3000 new hires, and some members have left the irregular workers union.

Given this situation, the irregular workers union demanded that the issue of irregular worker regularization be taken out of the irregular workers union’s collective bargaining and dealt with in a special negotiation session. Towards the end of August, it also adopted a new policy of “winning regularization for members who stick with the struggle first.” The proclamation of this policy was an effort to remobilize, yet it marks a retreat from the principle of “regularization of all in)house subcontracted workers.”

The regular and irregular workers unions in a special negotiating session on August 20

Results of the Regular Workers Union’s Collective Bargaining
On August 29, the Hyundai regular workers union reached an agreement in its collective bargaining with Hyundai without settling the issue of the irregular workers. The content of the agreement is as follows: 1) An increase in basic wages by 98,000 won, a bonus of 350% of basic wages plus 9 million won and an incentive bonus of 150% plus 600,000 won (including a 100,000 won tradition market gift certificate), for a total increase of 27 million won per person; 2) a two)week trial of the two daytime shift system (replacing late night work), beginning on January 1, 2013 and full implementation at all plants based on one 8)hour and one 9)hour shift. The issue of regularizing irregular workers was deferred to a future special negotiation session.

In the bargaining session that took place beginning at 5:00pm on August 29, 4 members of the union bargaining committee walked out in protest against the company’s proposal. That night, the 4 bargaining committee members and some 50 Hyundai Motor Branch delegates and activists held a protest in front of the factory opposing the agreement, which lasted until roughly 12:00am. Their criticisms focus on the fact that the agreement failed to include a provision for an increase in employees to accompany the implementation of the two daytime shift system, meaning an increase in work intensity, and the fact that the bargaining committee had agreed to the belated reinstatement of fired workers in the first quarter of next year. The results of the union vote on the agreement reflected this atmosphere of discontent. The agreement barely past with a vote of 52.7% in favor.

Hyundai Motor’s profits in 2011 were 4.8 trillion won ($4.2 billion) a 36% increase over profits in 2010 (3.5 trillion won). Nonetheless, company management has maintained its position that, while it might give a bit more to regular workers, it will never regularize irregular workers. By so doing, it has succeeded in creating division between the regular and irregular workers. Despite the agreement to revisit the irregular worker question in special negotiations, hopes are not high that the regular workers union will give the needed support to the irregular workers’ struggle now that their collective bargaining agreement has been reached.

Future Prospects
The irregular workers union must now regroup and preparing for the special negotiations. To do so, the union must succeed in re)energizing its members to struggle and beat back company repression. It must also find a way to build common cause with active members of the regular workers union. Currently, the irregular workers union is planning a new struggle for the end of September and beginning of October. In the end, the struggle of Hyundai irregular workers, is the struggle of all in)house subcontracted workers South Korea. The solidarity of the labor movement and all progressive forces is, therefore, absolutely essential.

Migrant Workers Stand up to new Slave Labor Policy

Posted in articles on September 8th, 2012 by pssp – Be the first to comment

On June 4, 2012, the South Korean Ministry of Employment and Labor MoL) announced a new policy entitled "Policy for Improvement in Foreign Workers' Change of Workplaces and Prevention of Broker Intervention". This policy, which went into effect on August 1, changes the procedures used by local MoL job centers in processing migrant workers' applications to transfer workplaces. While the policy's title sounds good, it actually makes it incredibly difficult for migrant workers to change employers, even in cases where they face extremely severe labor rights violations and poor working conditions. The policy change has sparked severe concerns by migrant workers' advocates and the beginnings of a potentially powerful struggle based on the participation and leadership of migrant workers themselves.

Young cambodian migrant workers at August 19 rally

Documented migrant workers in South Korea are regulated by the Employment Permit System .EPS). Under this system, migrant workers, who receive short-term residence permits, can change workplaces a limited number of times, but generally need the permission of their employers to do so. If a migrant worker who leaves one workplace cannot find new employment within three months he/she loses his/her residence status, becoming undocumented. Even without the new MoL policy, the limitations the EPS puts on changing workplaces means the workers are often stuck with abusive employers with no options except to endure the situation or leave the workplace without permission, thus becoming undocumented.

The new MoL policy makes the situation even worse. Whereas in the past, migrant workers seeking new employment were given a list of potential workplaces, now only employers receive a list of migrant workers looking for job. This means that migrant workers can do nothing more than sit at home hoping for a call from a prospective employer and will have a hard time refusing a job offer no matter how poor the working conditions for fear of not getting a second one. As such, the policy will further discourage migrant workers from leaving employer who violate the labor law in the first place, effectively forcing them into slave labor. The policy is a clear violation of the right to free choice of employment, guarantee in Korean labor law and ILO Convention 122, which South Korea has ratified.

Recognizing the problematic nature of this policy, the Migrants Trade Union, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and migrant worker support centers across the country formed a "Committee to Repeal the Slave Labor MoL Policy". This Committee has been actively fighting the policy since mid-July. Even more important, however, has been the massive participation of previously unorganized young migrant workers who, recognizing the significance of the policy for their daily lives, have started to come out to meeting and protests in force. Nearly 700 such workers, mostly from Cambodia, showed up at a rally on August 19, having seen advertisements for it on the internet or hearing about it by word of mouth. These workers held an impromptu discussion about what to do next at the rally site and then come out for a meeting the following weekend to discuss detailed plans. This level of voluntary participation by unorganized migrant workers is unheard of these days in the Korean migrant workers movements, which has been weekend over the last several years by massive immigration crackdowns and targeted repression.

The struggle against the MoL's new policy is significant for several reasons. First the policy represents a trend towards the increasing repression of migrant workers rights, even as the South Korean government and capital admit that migrant labor is essential to the Korean economy. Secondly, the struggle has brought together and energized organizations working on migrants rights around the country. Finally, and most importantly, this struggle presents a desperately needed organizing and leadership development opportunity. It will be up to union officers and activists to seize this rare chance to revitalized a migrant worker-led migrant rights movement.

Don’t Make a Sour Face

Posted in articles on September 8th, 2012 by pssp – Be the first to comment

By Chang-un Choi

Don't make a sour face. You know things are difficult for everyone.
And you know you have comrades working with you for a more joyful day.
When you feel alone, just look around you.
All of these people are our comrades.

The road we are traveling is not going to be easy.
And there will be times that we are brought down by repression.
But if we are with our comrades we need not be afraid,
Until the day of workers' liberation, advance, ad! vance! Let's advance!

Directly after the 'Great Workers' Struggle of 1987' social movements in South Korea developed rapidly, both quantitatively and qualitatively. The diverse movement forces, however, could not agree among themselves about political strategy, a problem that was exacerbated by the collapse of socialist governments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. A downturn in the movement came with the turn of the decade. At this time, a self-reflective atmosphere spread among progressive forces. Instead of the solemn and majestic marching songs of the 1980s, lighter and more speculative songs became popular.

'Don't Make a Sour Face', which was released in 1991, began this trend. Its light and quick tempo was a bit shocking to listeners, who were accustomed to the heavy mood and slow tempos of the songs of the 1980s. The lyrics, which propose "the rediscovery of the existence of the comrades around you," are quite trivial compared with the "grand" songs of the past decade. But in an era in which everything was obscure, 'comrades' were the only concrete thing that was left.

The song became unexpectedly popular after a celebrity did a remake of it in 2003 with a few changes to the lyrics. Now the song can be heard not only in movement spaces, but also in everyday life. .Sound Only)
The movement band 'Ggottazi' . singing 'Don't make a sour face'.

A performance of "Don't make a sour face" at a community festival.

The Violence Commercialized: Capital’s Private Army – Contactus

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A banner demanding that SJM's owner be punished for contracting with Contactus to violently suppress the union's protest

At 5 a.m. on July 27, 2012, the opening day of the London Olympics, 200 armed men raided the SJM factory in Ansan where members of the Korean Metal Workers’ Union SJM Chapter were staging a sit-in protest. A female union member called the police for help 4 times before they finally arrived. When they finally got to the factory, the police did nothing to stop the armed gang as it meted out violence against the union members. In all 35 union members were injured, 10 seriously. Following the incident images and video footage of the scene circulated widely through social media.

The strikebreakers who descended on the SJM workers that day were employed by Contactus, a security contractor specializing in quelling protests. Contactus owns not only 1,000 sets of riot police equipment, but also German-made water cannons. According to its website, the company can dispatch up to 3,000 individuals at one time and prefers offensive - as opposed to defensive - suppression tactics. It has been revealed that the chairman of Contactus is a staff member of the ruling New Frontier Party and that the company has a record of bribing police officers to win their cooperation. The fact that Contactus has been known to have its employees hired by its clients so as to disguise them as union members has caused a particular stir. Contactus even had plans to launch two media channels.

Hiring security contractors is becoming a common method for quelling strikes and bursting unions in South Korea. In the past, capital organized managers and non-union members into company strikebreaking squads. Now, however, the violence – like everything else – is being outsourced. Capital now seeks to exclude even state power from its domain by contracting private armies. In other words, capital is replacing state authority with its economic power, doing so with the consent of the police and conservative politicians. This collusion is making Korean workers into 21st century slaves.

Due to the public attention to this particular case, Contactus lost its business license, while 4 Contactus managers and the SJM director who orchestrated the raid are being prosecuted. Dozens of similar security contractors, however, are still in operation and vigorously expanding their businesses. Private violence is now a prosperous industry in South Korea.

Updates (September 2012)

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KPTU Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division concludes Strike
On June 25, the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division of the Korean Public & Social Service and Transportation Workers Union .KPTU) went on strike demanding an increase in freight rates, the waving of fuel taxes, the implementation of a standard freight rates system and unionization rights. For five days, logistics bases across the country experienced major delays due to the strike. The strike end on June 29, with the cargo truckers winning a 9.9% increase in freight rates. While the rate increase was lower than had been hoped, the strike was successful in winning a promise from the Democratic Party to include the cargo tuckers' demands in its party platform. More importantly, the strike was instrumental in increasing public sympathy for cargo truckers, which forms an important basis for further struggle.

Cleaning and Security Workers at Hongik University win Union Recognition
After an 85-days sit-in protest, cleaning and security workers at Hongik University finally forced the contract cleaning company Yongjin Sileob to recognize their union, the Seoul-Gyeonggi Public Service Branch of the Korean Public & Social Service and Transportation Workers Union .KPTU). Yongjin Sileob had established a yellow union, and was claiming the yellow union had the status of bargaining representative as an excuse not to recognize the KPTU union. Through their struggle, the Hongik workers forced Yongjin management to reach an agreement with their union on August 1. Under this agreement, the workers will be covered by the KPTU Seoul-Gyeonggi Public Service Branch's multi-workplace collective bargaining agreement, reached last April 19. Yongjin Sileob also agreed either not to seek a renewal of its contract with Hongik administration after it runs out in December, or to bargain faithfully with the union if its contract is renewed.

Former President of Ssangyong Union Released from Prison after 3 Years
At 12:00am on the night of August 4-5, Sang-gyun Han, former President of the Korean Metal Workers Union Ssangyong Motor Branch was released from Hwaseong prison after serving a three-year sentence. Han, who is loved and respected by the Ssangyong Motor union members and the Korean labor movement, was arrested after leading a 77-day factory occupation and strike against mass dismissals in 2009. He was greeted by a crowd of union members, students and activists holding a cultural event in front of the prison to honor his release. Han addressed the crowd saying, "Thank you. I promise to struggle even more fiercely in the future."

Strike Song

Posted in articles on June 20th, 2012 by pssp – Be the first to comment

by Hochul Kim

Scattered, we will die. Wavering, we will also die.

United as one, we set out towards victory.

We shall keep our promises to our comrades

Even if our skulls are split.

We stood together in our strike,

Through it we defeated the violent kusadae*,

We, united in our strike,

Set out towards emancipation.

Scattered, we will die. Wavering, we’ll also die.

United as one, we set out towards victory.

*Kusadae – A band of anti-strike workers supported by management. Kusadae, which means “Division saving the company”, have been organized at many workplaces where labor disputes are occurring and have committed naked violence against striking workers.

In June 1987, a great wave of civil protest against military dictatorship swept across South Korea. A general strike and workers’ struggles for building democratic trade unions followed. This period was known as the “Great Workers’ Struggle of 1987″ or the “7·8·9 Great Workers’ Struggle”). This massive wave of organizing symbolized the overcoming of defeatism that had plagued Korea’s social movement after the terrible massacre in Gwangju committed by the military in 1980. For workers, it was the first awakening, during which they gained dignity and class-consciousness. The need for cultural forms to express workers’ own stories was clear.

‘Strike Song’, composed in 1988, spread quickly to every workplace where a labor dispute was occurring and became one of workers’ favorite songs. At workplaces where trade union did not exist and management’s violence was severe, the song was sung to build solidarity among the workers. As the song, which has a powerful and solemn tone, depicts the moment workers go on strike, it has also become the opening song for workers’ collective actions. The composer, Hochul Kim, was a worker himself. He was one of the first to recognize that workers need songs for themselves during the Great Workers’ struggle of 1987 and became a father of workers’ music. He has composed over 100 songs for workers and the labor movement. (Sound Only)

University students singing ‘Strike Song’

DAS Union on the 4th day of a strike in 2010 warming up with ‘Strike Song’

The Crisis of the United Progressive Party and the Path ahead for Working-class Political Power

Posted in articles on June 20th, 2012 by pssp – Be the first to comment

What is the United Progressive Party?

The United Progressive Party (UPP) is the most recent incarnation of a party formed original to represent the interests of the Korean working class.

From the time it was founded in 1995, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) has seen ‘building workers’ political power’ as an important strategy. In line with this strategy, KCTU made an organizational decision to build a workers’ progressive party. In 2001 the Democratic Labor Party (KDLP) was founded with KCTU’s president as the party’s leader. KCTU adopted ‘building political power through the KDLP’ as its official policy.

In the 2007 presidential elections, however, the KDLP candidate received many less votes than had been expected. This led to tensions within the party as the minority left wing of the party criticizing the dominant nationalist tendency (known as National Liberation or ‘NL’) for being undemocratic and too close to North Korea. This conflict led to a split in the party with the left-wing faction leaving to form the New Progressive Party.

The split within the KDLP also led to increased sectarian conflict within KCTU. Ahead of general elections scheduled for April 2012, KCTU tried to over come these problems and bring the two parties back together throughout last year. Members of the two parties along with several progressive and people’s organizations formed the ”Committee for Grand Unity of the Left” through which they discussed the formation of a new party. The dominant part of the NL tendency (known in Korean as danggwonpa) within the KDLP, however, moved in a different direction, trying to join forces with the Participation Party, a party that had been widely criticized as supporting the interests of neoliberal capitalism. As a result of this drive by the danggwonpa, the attempts to bring the KDLP and the New Progressive Party back together failed. Instead the KDLP, the Participation Party and a small group of the New Progressive Party led by a few well-known individuals came together to form the United Progressive Party (UPP).

Evaluation of the UPP

Several forces within the Korean progressive movement opposed joining forces with the Participation Party. They have maintained that given the involvement of neoliberal Participation Party, the UPP cannot be seen as a truly progressive party. In particular, they pointed to the fact that the Participation Party was formed by members of the previous Noh Mu hyun government, which was responsible for severe labor repression, the retrogressive revision of the law on precarious workers and pursuit of the U.S.-Korea FTA.

Nonetheless, the dominant NL group within KCTU attempted to apply its previous policy of full electoral support for the KDLP to the UUP. In response, left-wing forces created the “KCTU Union Members’ Front to Oppose the Policy of Exclusive Support for the UPP and realize true Working-class Politics.” This group called on the KCTU leadership to hold an emergency delegates assembly to discussion the issue. In the end, the KCTU leadership was unable to adopt a policy of exclusive support for the UPP. It did however, force through a policy by which union members were required to vote for the UPP in the election of proportional national assembly representatives in the general election held on April 11.

Meanwhile, the UPP forced an electoral alliance with the Democratic United Party (the centrist opposition party, hereafter ‘DUP’). Through this strategy it won 7 seats in electoral districts and 6 proportional representative seats in the general elections.

Proportional Representative Election Corruption and the Deteriorating Image of the Left

Directly after the general elections, questions about the legitimacy of the UPP elections to select proportional representative candidates surfaced. An internal investigation was carried out, the report of which was released on May 2. The investigation found that grave irregularities and corruption had occurred during the internal elections leading the construction of the list of proportional representative candidates that favored the dangwonpa.

The results of the investigation were immediately picked up and played over and over again in the mainstream leading to widespread criticisms of the UPP and progressives in general among the Korean public. The criticisms of the UPP danggwonpa were particularly strong. Nonetheless, the danggwonpa rejected the findings of the report and expressed its opposition by disrupting a party Central Committee meeting on May 12, chanting and eventually resorting to physical violence.

These incidents were reported by the mainstream media leading to growing criticism of the UPP and the left in general as undemocratic. In other words, the conflict within the UPP has led to severe deterioration of the image of the entire labor and progressive movement. Even worse, the Prosecutors’ Office used the election corruption issue an excuse to raid the UPP’s office and confiscate the party server, an incident which has no precedent in the history of the Korean movement. The UPP crisis has given the government yet another tool through which to repress the left.

Never-ending Turmoil

The UPP tried to overcome the situation by creating an ‘Emergency Committee for Party Renewal’, which adopted the position that all elected proportional representatives should step down. The danggwonpa, however, refused to accept this decision and instead formed its own ‘Danggwonpa Emergency Committee’ to challenge the Renewal Emergency Committee. The danggwwonpa insists that if a more complete investigation of the proportional representative election finds real corruption they will agree to the resignations. In fact, however, it has come to light that the danggwonpa is planning to regain control of the party leadership in the upcoming party elections at the end of June.

Problems in KCTU’s Position

Despite criticism coming both from within KCTU’s membership and from other progressive forces, the KCTU leadership adopted the policy that all members should vote for the UPP in the proportional representative elections and carried out a campaign to win support for the UPP. The KCTU leadership believed that if that opposition forces (the UPP and the DUP) could gain a parliamentary majority the left could win changes favorable to workers through a legislative strategy focused on “the passage of 10 bills in 100 days.” The opposition, however, failed to win a majority. In shock and without a clear idea of how to respond, the KCTU leadership revised its plan and has instead called for a general strike later in the year to demand abolition of mass dismissals and precarious work and the progressive revision of labor law.

The crisis surrounding the UPP – the party the KCTU leadership has supported – has creating serious confusion within KCTU. After much debate the KCTU’s Central Executive Committee issued a statement on May 17 expressing, “deep concern that the UPP has currently strayed from the path of a true progressive party based in the working class and the principles of democracy.” The statement also announced that KCTU had “conditionally withdrawn support for the UPP until the party regains its working-class basis and puts a plan for renewal into practice,” and that KCTU would “establish an internal mechanism for pursuing a second attempt at ‘building workers’ political power’.”

While these measures are a step in the right direction, they do not address the deeper problems of the UPP. In particular, KCTU has put forth no critique of the inclusion of the neoliberal Participation Party in the UPP, nor has it carried out an internal evaluation of its previous policy of exclusive support for the UPP in the proportional representative election. If KCTU does not deal with these more fundamental problems, the second attempt at ‘building workers’ political power’ will most likely lead to failure.


It will be difficult to solve the problems within the UPP in the near future. More important than a resolution to the conflict between the danggwonpa and the rest of the party, however, is the question of what direction the UPP – or any party that is supposed to represent the interests of the working class – will take. While the original KDLP was committed to ‘socialist principles and goals’ its platform was later revised to define the party’s character instead as ‘progressive democratic’. Without a clear statement of the KDLP’s basis in and commitment to the working class the party increasingly moved in a more conservative direction, eventually leading the merger with the Participation Party. Without clear criticism of these errors, it is likely that the current “Renewal Emergency Committee” will only deal with cosmetic problems while continuing to take the party in a more and more conservative direction.

KCTU as well, has moved towards the right, focusing on a legislative strategy dependant on an alliance with the centrist DUP and the mobilization of members to vote in elections. The ideological and practical limitations of this strategy must also be seriously examined.

Now more than ever, it is important for KCTU to adopt a strategy befitting a truly progressive union – one that is based not on legislative or electoral politics, but on developing rank and file members as real political actors through study and struggle and building real political power through working-class unity. ‘Building political power’ must be understood as the process of the working class ideologically and organizationally developing into an independent agent of social change. This understanding must form the basis of any new efforts by the KCTU at party politics or to develop as a political force.

Updates (June 2012)

Posted in articles on June 20th, 2012 by pssp – Be the first to comment

Ssangyong Workers’ Struggle Continues

On April 6, Ssangyong Motor workers set up an alter in front of Seoul City Hall as a site of commemoration for the 22 workers and family members that have died since mass dismissals were carried out in 2009. The alter has also become a site of continued struggle. The Ssangyong workers and their supporters have defended the alter against police attacks, even rebuilding it from scratch after police destroyed it on May 24. On May 19 the Ssangyong Motor workers were joined by thousands of allies in a mass protest and march in timing with the anniversary of the 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement. In addition, a representative from the Ssangyong Motor branch of the Korean Metal Workers Union participated in the International Autoworkers Council Meeting in Germany in May to share news of their struggle. Another massive march and all-night protest were held in support of the Ssangyong workers’ struggle on June 16-17.

Janitorial Workers win Wage Increase, Continue Struggle

On April 19 janitorial and security workers organized by the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers Union’s Seoul-Gyeonggi Branch won a collective bargaining agreement that covers workers at 6 worksites. Under this agreement workers will receive a 10.87% wage increase of KRW 5100/hr (USD 4.37/hr), a KRW 60,000/mth (USD 51.46/mth) allowance for meals and KRW 150,000 (USD128.66) in holiday bonuses. Workers a Hongik University continue to fight with the support of their colleagues, however, as the Hongik administration and cleaning companies refuse to recognize the KPTU affiliate claiming that a yellow union they helped to form is the real bargaining representative. On June 15, workers from all worksites held a joint “Janitorial Workers March” calling for an end to the repression at Hongik University and decent conditions for all janitorial and security workers. The American SEIU-Service Workers West Local sent a solidarity video played at the Korean workers’ rally. SEIU janitorial workers also march on June 15 ever year to mark the anniversary of a famous struggle in their Justice for Janitors Campaign.

Railway Workers to walk out against Government Plan to Privatize bullet-train Services

Posted in articles on June 20th, 2012 by pssp – 1 Comment

The Korean government is pushing ahead with the privatization of the country’s high-speed KTX trains. The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs proposed the privatization plan in December 2011. The plan includes allowing a private company to operate two new bullet-train lines, one that connects Suseo in southern Seoul to Busan, and one that connects Suseo to Mokpo, South Jeolla Province. These lines are currently under construction and are scheduled to be complete in 2015.

The government has denied that its policy is real a privatization policy and argues instead that the plan is aimed at bringing competition into the railway sector, which has been monopolized by the state-run railroad operator Korail. It insists that if a private enterprise enters the railroad sector, it will boost the efficiency of railway operation and consequently reduce fares, thus improving the financial soundness of the debt-ridden Korail.

In reality, however, this is just another example of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s “business-friendly” policies, which are designed to provide favors to large corporate groups. Under the proposed plan, the selected private company will be guaranteed a permit to operate a part of the KTX operations for 15 years even though the KTX is the only profit-making business of the deficit-ridden Korail. As such, the new policy would undermine the train’s public purpose and raise train fares. The plan will inevitably result in privatization of the entire system, which will cause poor maintenance and jeopardize passenger safety as private operators will make brining in profits their priority.

The Lee administration originally proposed a policy of full privatization of the railway sector through the establishment of a private holding company. It scrapped this plan, however, after facing severe opposition. Since then, the government has continued to outsource various operations and take steps in the direction of privatization. The government’s plan is a roundabout way to privatize an essential public service and is in line with other pro-business plans to privatize airports and allow for-profit hospitals.

The members of the Korean Railway Workers’ Union endorsed an anti-privatization strike with an approval rate of 86 percent in April. The union has said the timing for the actual strike will depend on the progress of the government’s plan. The government said that unionized rail workers’ recent decision to walk out to resist the proposed partial privatization of KTX bullet-train operations is clearly illegal and should be scrapped. This is an issue that requires continued attention in the future.

The South Korean Minimum Wage Struggle

Posted in articles on June 20th, 2012 by pssp – 1 Comment

Minimum wage in South Korea was set at KRW 4580/hr (roughly USD 4/hr) for 2012. The cost of a Big Mac set at a McDonalds in South Korea is KRW 5200 (USD 4.46). In other words, in a country where the per capita income is over USD 20,000, a minimum wage worker cannot even buy a fast food meal after an hour of work.

In South Korea, the minimum wage is set by a tripartite Minimum Wage Committee made up of nine labor representatives, nine employer representatives and nine ‘public interest’ representatives. This committee meets at the end of June each year to set the minimum wage for the following year. Around this time each year, therefore, unions and social movement organizations carry out a struggle to demand an increase in the minimum wage.

The current minimum wage is only 32% of the average wage. It is workers who work the hardest in the worst conditions – janitorial workers, security guards, restaurant workers and workers in small-scale manufacturing enterprises – who have to get by on minimum wage. For 2013, KCTU is demanding that minimum wage be raised to KRW 5600 (USD 4.80) – 50% of the average wage.

This year, however, the minimum wage struggle has to do with more than simply winning an increase. The reason for this is that the Ministry of Labor and Employment (MoL) suddenly changed the composition of the Minimum Wage Committee without notifying the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) ahead of time. Originally, labor was represented by 4 KCTU representatives and 5 FKTU representatives.

This year, however, the MoL suddenly gave a seat to the recently formed Korean People’s Labor Union Confederation (KLUC). The KLUC is so pro-government it has been called the ‘Lee Myung-bak Confederation’, and progressives fear its representative will not act in the interest of workers. In the past, the labor and employers representatives on the committee have put forth opposing proposals, while the ‘public interest’ representatives put forth a compromise position. Added to this structure, the KLUC representative is likely to wield excessive power. As such both KCTU and FKTU are currently boycotting the committee in protest.

KCTU is also working together with social movement organizations in a campaign to raise public awareness about the importance of raising the minimum wage. This campaign includes one-person protests, street outreach and street marches throughout the country. Through these actions, KCTU and participating organizations seek to educate the public about the hardships faced by minimum-wage workers.

So far the response has been vary positive, an encouraging sign given that social pressure on the ‘public interest’ representatives to take the side of labor is the only real way to influence the Minimum Wage Committee’s decision.

The minimum wage struggle, however, still has a long way to go before it gains real strength. First, it is important to come up with a means for deciding the minimum wage based on the cost of living. In addition, it is important not only to raise social awareness of the importance of a minimum wage increase, but also to organizing minimum-wage workers into unions so that they may become agents of the struggle. This is the only way that real power to win a fair minimum wage will be developed.