From the Pages of Z Magazine


Korean Workers Shut Down the Chaebols

By David Bacon


Since January 14, pitched battles have raged in the streets of Seoul. Outside the Myongdong Cathedral, union leaders have been directing the general strike paralyzing South Korea, and phalanxes of police have tried to disperse thousands of demonstrators.

The strike has become, not just a movement of workers, but a pro-democracy movement involving all parts of Korean society. TV newscasters have left their studios and joined the strikers. University professors and white-collar workers rub shoulders with industrial laborers. They have all surrounded the Myongdong Cathedral, trying to hold the police at bay.

The Korean strike draws its strength from the hundreds of thousand of workers at big auto plants, steel mills, and shipyards—the heart of the Korean economy. When industry stopped in late December, the stock market plunged and the social structure began to waver and shake.

Their movement has its roots in the labor unrest of a decade ago, when workers organized new, militant unions in the heart of Korean industry. That upsurge was so violent that it destabilized the military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee. It was the opening move in the forcible democratization of the south. Out of the industrial battles of that era a new labor movement was born—the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU).

This winter, when the KCTU called out its members just before Christmas, it seized the political initiative, and shut the country down.

The current strike wave has three basic causes:

South Korea has been number one among the "Asian tigers" (which also include Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong), held up as a model of economic development. But it has been development at a high cost for those whose labor built the factories and mills and turned out a torrent of industrial products.

Workers paid for the Korean economic miracle by giving up their labor rights. After the Korean War, the government decided that strong unions would drive up the cost of labor, and restrict the growth of the chaebols—the huge industrial conglomerates like Hyundai, Samsung and Daewoo. Strikes were originally banned outright. Then, after the uprising a decade ago, the government started jailing union leaders for almost any strike-related activity. KCTU President Kwon Young-kil was himself arrested last year for union activity, and many other leaders are presently imprisoned for the crime of "disrupting business." The KCTU is an illegal union, with no right to exist under Korean labor law.

Repression has kept the cost of labor low for Korean industry. Although wages have been rising in all the "Asian tiger" countries, partly because of growing labor militancy, the salary of a Korean industrial worker is still far below that of someone doing the same job in the U.S., Europe, or Japan. The average cost of an hour’s labor, including wages and benefits, in Korea was $5.53 in 1993. In the U.S. it was $16.73. In Britain it was $12.76. Korean workers paid for their country’s enormous industrial growth with a low standard of living, while making the chaebols some of the world’s largest and wealthiest corporations. Workers are angry about paying this price, and determined to change it.

The Korean government precipitated the current unrest with its intention to strip away even further any legal protection for union activity. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has been pressuring Korea to reform its labor law as a condition of admittance. But after promising reforms, the government produced something very different.

In a late-night, seven-minute session of the Korean Congress, to which only government-party legislators were invited, a new law was passed, legalizing the hiring of replacement workers, or scabs, during strikes. This may not raise eyebrows in the U.S., but only because U.S. labor laws are among the world’s most backward in this respect. In Korea, as in most other countries, hiring strikebreakers has always been illegal.

Breaking the government’s previous commitment, the new law also maintains the KCTU’s illegal status. Kwon Young-kil declared that the KCTU would continue striking "until the government makes an official commitment to reopen the parliamentary discussions involving the trade union representatives for a re-amendment of the labour law." The legislation, he said, "was passed in an undemocratic manner and contains various pernicious clauses that are aimed to set back the clock on both the working conditions and trade union rights."

An offensive against workers’ social benefits is spreading throughout the industrial world. Last year, when the French goverment went after workers’ health care, and the German government went after their sick pay and vacation, massive strikes broke out in response.

This international attack has now hit Korea. The Korean labor law reform not only undermines union rights, but it also abolishes one of the Korean industry’s most basic job benefits—employment security. By making layoffs much easier, the Korean government is helping Hyundai, Daewoo, and the other chaebols to shed thousands of employees, while demanding greater production from those that remain.

The strike wave has one new feature, however, which promises to give it much greater strength and staying power—joint action by its unions. Unlike the struggle of a decade ago, this time the KCTU has been joined, albeit reluctantly and intermittently, by the more-conservative Federation of Korean Trade Unions.

The FKTU was organized with the blessing of the Korean government. It has been a conservative labor movement, intended to make workers more cooperative in building the country’s economic miracle. The FKTU didn’t challenge the chaebols, but insulated them instead from a more militant brand of unionism.

During the cold war, the FKTU received assistance from the International Affairs Department of the AFL-CIO, which was historically connected to the U.S. intelligence apparatus. Creating a conservative labor movement was a U.S. foreign policy objective, part of its overall political and military support for the South Korean government and its industrial complex.

As a consequence, when workers rose against the chaebols a decade ago, they saw the FKTU as part of the structure of military rule. The Korean labor movement has been divided since.

But changes in the leadership of the AFL-CIO have pulled the rug out from under the cold warriors, and cut off money flowing to conservative unions in countries like South Korea. At the same time, the anger of Korean workers at the corruption of the chaebols and the government has grown so great that if the leaders of the FKTU don’t respond to it, they will lose their credibility.

This all should be good news to U.S. workers. The denial of the rights of Korean unions has been a big attraction for corporate investment, a low-wage magnet drawing jobs and production. When U.S. unions lined up with U.S. cold war foreign policy, supporting the South Korean government and the chaebols, it didn’t just hurt Korean workers. It cost jobs at home as well.

Korean unions are fighting to level the world’s economic playing field. They want the same rights and economic standards workers struck for in France and Germany, and which (in the case of prohibiting strikebreakers) workers in the U.S. wish they had.     

David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer on labor issues.