Korean workers show how to handle a conservative congress
Kim Moody, Labor Notes
March 1997

As the new year dawned, mass strikes swept South Korea. Beginning on December 26 and pausing only for the New Year's holidays, each new day brought new groups of workers into the streets as Korea's new unions battled that country's conservative governing party.

The strikes were touched off when, at six in the morning on December 26, 154 legislators of the ruling New Korea Party held a secret session on the National Assembly. Without any opposition legislators present, they rammed through 11 new laws in seven minutes.

Those laws included revisions in the labor law to allow employers to fire or lay off employees more freely, replace them with temporary workers, replace striking workers with scabs, ban public sector unions, and keep Korea's militant new unions illegal.

South Korean President Kim Young-sam said the new laws would "provide significant impetus for improved competitiveness." They would allow Koreas' big corporations to downsize drastically, intensifying work and creating serious unemployment.

The militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), an unrecognized federation founded in 1995, called for a general strike that day. Over 100,000 workers responded immediately. The strike escalated each day and by December 31 over 400,000 workers were on strike. Even the more conservative government-recognized Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) endorsed the strikes.

The strike movement has been endorsed by virtually all of the pro-democracy and social movement organizations in South Korea.

Hitting where it hurts
It is the newer more militant KCTU that has brought the majority of workers into the streets and crippled the country's export-oriented corporations. Companies like Hyundai, Daewoo, Kia Motors and others were organized in the mass strike waves of the late 1980s into unions now affiliated with the rebel KCTU.

With Korea experiencing a $23 billion deficit in trade and foreign investment for 1996, strikes in these sectors have put the government on the spot. By January 13, the strikes had cost Korean industry over $2 billion.

About 22,000 KCTU-affiliated nurses and other health care workers joined the strike on the 7th, along with 4,400 broadcast workers. Into the second week of January, the country's "necktie corps" of white collar office workers in both the public and private sectors also joined the struggle in numbers.

On January 7, the government tried to intimidate strike leaders by declaring the strikes illegal. Fifty national and local leaders were summoned to report to government prosecutors the next day. They refused to show up. The next day, the government issued arrest warrants for 20 leaders and new summonses for 100 additional KCTU officials. The KCTU said it would continue to defy the summonses and warrants.

Police raids
On January 9 and 10, police broke into the headquarters of the KCTU and several of its affiliates and seized records.

The larger FKTU called strikes for January 14 and 15.

By this time, the unions were calling for the New Korea Party government to step down.

An international labor delegation arrived in Seoul on January 11 to meet with both union leaders and government officials. It was composed of representatives from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and other international union groups. Protests against the government's policy poured into Korea from unions all over the world as the strikes continued into mid-January.

Unions as a new political factor
As politicians around the world attempt to impose austerity or disciplinary programs on working people, unions in more and more countries are leading the opposition and finding wide public support.

Many of us remember how unions shut down much of France in December of 1995. But in 1996, general or mass strikes against government austerity or anti-labor plans took place in Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Greece, Spain, and Venezuela, as well as South Korea.

Mass trade union-led political demonstrations have been even more common, particularly across Western Europe.

Back in the USA, the AFL-CIO issued a statement of solidarity with the Korean strikers. A few days later, just before Newt Gingrich was re-elected Speaker of the House, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, "We are going to be striving for a new relationship between moderate Republicans and working people." Forget the Republicans, John. Forget the Democrats. Check out the power of your own members.

Reprinted from Labor Notes, February, 1997. The Civic Media Center will host a program on Korea on Tuesday April 15 at 8 p.m. Call 373-0010.

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