Friday July 24 sees the end of a three-day general strike in South Korea but not the end of a social and political crisis in the country. On Wednesday, July 22 – the day the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions began widespread strike action in solidarity with embattled Ssangyong car workers in Pyeontaek – there were stormy scenes in the countrys parliament. On live TV, ‘Law-makers’ male and female wrestled and punched each other furiously and pulled the speakers rostrum to the floor.
The ruling right wing Grand National Party of President Lee Myung Bak was rail-roading through new legislation on the media. The opposition parties claim it will give huge additional power to the conglomerates or Chaebol that already dominate the country’s economy. A similar battle is under way over changes to the law governing banking which will reopen access for the Chaebol to take important shares in the countrys major finance institutions. This is seen by many, including the KCTU leaders, as a major retrograde step; it revives a relationship between the banks and the big monopolies which they believe was one of the causes of the South Korean economy being unable to withstand the Asian crisis of a decade ago.
South Korea is the fourth largest economy in Asia, heavily dependent on exports and therefore hit particularly hard by the present world economic crisis. Instead of the 7% growth rate promised by Lee Myung Bak when he came into office one year ago, the economy has shrunk by 2%. Ssangyong Motors itself recorded a loss last year of 710 bn won ($567m).
Fight for survival
Against this background, workers in South Korea are literally fighting for their lives. New legislation is being prepared which will abolish many hard won rights to security in employment. It will dramatically increase the number of workers with temporary employment, dangerous working conditions and little or no protection under the law. The whole raft of legislation is known collectively as ‘MB (Myung Bak) Evil Bills’.
The struggle for survival is what lies behind the dramatic events at Ssangyong Motors. It is a company half owned by Shanghai Motors and finding no market for its cars. Already the union at Ssangyong had agreed to wage cuts, bonus delays and job-sharing or shorter hours per worker.
Many of the 2,646 workers who were declared redundant left the factory to try and find alternative jobs. Six hundred or so refused to leave the factory and, along with supporters, have maintained their occupation for nearly two months. Phalanxes of police invaded the site and corralled them into the massive paint-shop an area filled with highly flammable material.
Unable to break the workers resistance, management resorted to cutting off all supplies of gas, water, food and medical assistance. (They are unable to cut off electricity without seeing the vast stocks of paint immediately solidifying!). Thousands of workers have massed at the factory gates in solidarity and organised the provision of food and basic necessities.
On 20 July, over 3,000 riot police were mobilised to end the occupation on behalf of the owners. They had 30 vehicles, including water cannon, lighting vehicles, ladder trucks and helicopters. (Internal e-mails of the company showed that they had been considering using ‘sleeping gas’ to end the occupation!) Taser guns were used for the first time in a clash with strikers.
As the police made their violent advance into the compound, news came of the tragic suicide of the young wife of one of the union leaders. Company managers had been visiting strikers’ homes, threatening imprisonment of the activists and confiscation of homes to repay the company’s losses. The KCTU holds the company and the government responsible for the homicide of this young mother and of other workers in this giant factory over the years. “Dismissals are, in fact, murder” the union has taken as one of its slogans. Another message spray-painted on the wall of the factory says “If you are not going to talk (with us), kill us!”
The anger of the dismissed workers has reached boiling point. They have repulsed the forces of the state with bitter determination and their own armoury of missiles. As helicopters dropped liquid tear gas and pitched battles raged on the ground, Ssangyong’s workers devised powerful slings to fight off the invading army with a hail of nuts, bolts and lumps of metal. The police were forced to cower under netting and retreat.
So far the occupation holds and the KCTU is considering the next moves. It has called for international solidarity and declared that this is a fight to the end. KCTU leaders have sat fasting outside the Assembly building, even as the fracas inside was in full swing!
A new period of struggle
This confrontation marks the opening of a new wave of class struggle in Asia, just as the magnificent general strike of 1996-97 in South Korea the first strike against globalisation – did. As the economic crisis grew at that time, so did the mass battles against entrenched, reactionary politicians throughout the region. Most notable was the overthrow in 1998 of General Suhartos dictatorship in Indonesia.
The lessons of that period must be learned. Independent class action against the monopolies and against the still-ruling corrupt capitalist parties is vital. It is a tragedy to see renowned class fighters like the long-imprisoned trade union leader, Dita Sari, in Indonesia, recommend support for a presidential candidate who has as a running mate a man who was virtually one of her jailers General Wiranto, a right hand man to Suharto.
In South Korea the KCTU rails against the Chaebol and calls for a bail-out of the car industry to save the jobs of car workers. What they say about writing off the shares of Shanghai Motors and other foreign firms amounts to partial nationalisation. But why not go the whole way?
As the CWI has pointed out many times, the Chaebol in South Korea are rotten ripe for take over by the state and for the workers and poor people to begin to reorganise and run them through elected committees. Talk of clipping their claws or limiting their control over banks will not solve the problems. A genuine socialist alternative, advocated by a party based firmly amongst the heroic workers of South Korea, is the only way forward.
For messages of solidarity contact :
Lee Changgeun, Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. E-mail: [email protected]
or Jung Hye-won, Korean Metal Workers Union. E-mail: [email protected]