Hyundai Irregular Workers’ Factory Occupation Ends after 25 Days

10 December 2010

Wol-san Liem
Research Institute for Alternative Workers Movements

Yesterday (December 9), members of the Hyundai Motors Irregular Workers Chapter of the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU) left factory 1 of the Hyundai Plant in Ulsan. Their departure marked the end of a 25-day long occupation, which they had endured without adequate food, water or bedding.

Today, representatives from the Hyundai Motors Irregular Workers Chapter, the Hyundai Motors Local Branch (regular workers), and the KMWU sat down with representatives from Hyundai Motors and its in-house subcontractors. In accordance with an agreement reached between the President of the Irregular Workers Chapter, Lee Sang-su, President of the Local Branch, Lee Gyeong-hun and President of the KMWU, they presented the following 4 demands: 1) Cancellation of damage suits and charges against workers who participated in the occupation, and payment of medical bills; 2) guarantee of reinstatement for those who participated in the occupation, 3) protection for strike leaders, and 4) a plan for negotiations concerning the regularization of illegal dispatch workers.

While negotiations have begun, it will be an uphill battle to get demands met, and take even more determination before the ultimate goal of regularization for illegal dispatch workers is achieved. Past experience including a similar struggle in 2005, has shown that without the pressure of a factory occupation it is not likely that Hyundai Motors will yield much ground. For this reason many of the striking workers had not wanted to leave factory 1 until after their demands were met in full, and originally pledge to continue the occupation until Hyundai agreed to employ them directly as regular workers.

In reality, however, the striking irregular workers have faced increasingly difficult conditions in the last several days. In addition to repression at the hands of Hyundai Motors, they have been put under growing pressure by the leadership of the Hyundai Local Branch to bring their struggle to a speedy conclusion. While the KMWU Delegates Assembly voted in favor of a general strike in support of the irregular workers struggle on December 22, it had not set a firm date. Meanwhile, President Lee Gyeong-hun of the Hyundai Motors Local Branch determined to put the general strike to a second vote at a Branch general assembly, despite the fact that the KMWU Constitution gives the delegates assembly the right to call for a general strike. When the Hyundai Motors Local Branch leadership could have been educating its members on the importance of regular-irregular workers solidarity and preparing for the general strike, it was instead suggesting to its members that it was time for struggle to be over.

With knowledge of the negative result of the Branch general assembly, and the reality that the second vote signified the cancellation of general strike plans and the loss of support from the Branch, the irregular workers set to heated debate within the factory about whether to go one with their occupation or agree to leave and begin negotiations with a set of less than satisfactory demands. In the end, they chose to accept the demands listed above as a basis for negotiation and entrusted the decision to continue or end the occupation to the Chapter leadership. After meeting with the KMWU and Branch presidents, Lee Sang-su declared an end to the occupation.

Sadly, the conclusion of the occupation demonstrates clearly the limits of the solidarity between regular and irregular workers developed in the beginning of the strike and, even more so, the lack of will on the part of the Hyundai Motors Branch's leadership to support a strike that it should have recognized as the struggle of all Hyundai workers.

Nonetheless, there have been important victories through this struggle. The consciousness and daring of a few irregular workers quickly spread throughout the Irregular Workers Chapter and from Ulsan to Asan to Jeonju. The hundreds who participated in the strike have been transformed through the experience, coming to recognizing their common cause and developing the power and courage to demand their right to be treated equally. They constructed and made use of democratic decision-making structures even in the midst of the cruel conditions of their factory occupation, and formed a still growing sense of class-consciousness. Despite the fact that they will return to work on December 13, Hyundai irregular workers have vowed to continue organizing among their colleagues and preparing for the next phase of the struggle for regularization. As one reporter commented, the end of the factory occupation at the Ulsan plant represents, "a victory for the Hyundai irregular workers themselves, but a loss for the labor movement as a whole."

It is the power of class-consciousness and unity that makes struggle possible. The struggle, therefore, will surely go on.

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