(eng)The Second Wave Of General Strike In South Korea

Lao Tse (tao@tao.ca)
Sat, 4 Jan 1997 10:39:15 -0500 (EST)


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From: KCTU-International <kctuint@chollian.dacom.co.kr>

KOREAN CONFEDERATION OF TRADE UNIONS

Struggle for Labour Law Reforms Campaign News XX January 3, 1997

General Strike The Successful First Wave Embarking on the Second Wave

The Continuing Tide of General Strike

On January 3, 1997, the general strike that was sparked off by the bulldozing of an anti-worker, anti-union labour law and anti-democratic National Security Planning Agency Act by the ruling party in a secret meeting of National Assembly, entered into the second wave.

The Historic General Strike Surges into the New Year

In accordance with the three phase plan for the second wave of general strike in the New Year laid out by KCTU president Kwon Young-kil on December 30, 1996, unionists returning from the New Year's Day Holiday early resumed the strike on January 3, 1997. However, most of the unions at large companies, such as, the major car makers and shipyards whose holiday lasts till January 5, will resume the strike on January 6, 1997. The general strike will expand to cover all sectors and industries on January 7, as unions in most of the public utilities, such as, the television and radio networks and hospitals, are set to join the second wave of the general strike.

On January 3, 1997, some 46 unions, including the Kia Motors Unions, Daewoo Motors Union, Ssangyong Motors, Asia Motors affiliated to the Korean Federation Automobile Workers Unions, and the Hyundai Heavy Industry Union, Hanjin Heavy Industry, and Daewoo Shipbuilding Union of the Korean Federation of Metalworkers Unions, and the Kumho Tyre of the Korean Council of Chemical Workers Unions, totalling 96,158 workers took part in the first phase escalation of the second wave of general strike.

The resurgence of the general strike put an end to much of the "concern" or "doubt" about the possibility of picking up the momentum of the general strike that had to be temporarily suspended due to the New Year's Day holiday.

The keen "interest" in the "success" of the January 3rd strike was revealed in the mean attempt by the Ministry of Labour to distort and reduce the size of workers and union participation in the strike. The Ministry of Labour released regular press reports on January 3, radically downsizing the strength of the strike. The Ministry of Labour reported that only 31 unions and 22 thousand workers took part in the first phase escalation of the second wave general strike. For example, the Ministry of Labour report claimed that only 1,500 members of the Daewoo Motors Union took part in the strike. However, the KCTU found that this figure was only those who took part in the public rally and campaign the union conducted after having completed a union strike meeting at the factory. In fact, some 3,500 workers attended the strike meeting; and among them, apart from those who returned home or stayed on the factory picket line, 1,500 members went out into the downtown areas to conduct street campaigns. Furthermore, more than 80% of the members who were scheduled to work on the night shift had already made resolution to boycott the work.

The Sharpening of the Goal of the General Strike

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions had to modify its tack for the aims of the general strike. This was brought about by the sudden decision of the Korean government on December 31, 1996, to formally promulgate the amended labour law (to come into effect from March 1, 1997). The government action can only be regarded as a calculated step to quell the 'hopes' for a presidential veto of the amended labour law.

As a result, the leadership of the KCTU, redefined the goal of the general strike. In daily press conferences since the New Year's Day, the KCTU leadership made clear that the goal of the general strike was to bring about a nullification of the new labour law and the declaration of the government to begin a new round of (genuine) democratic discussions involving all the political parties, government, employers, and the unions for the enactment of a new labour law.

President Kwon Young-kil declared that the KCTU will extend the massive militant action into the presidential election to bring about the downfall of Kim Young Sam government if the government fails to accept the KCTU demands for a genuine re-amendment of the labour laws.

The "unexpected" or "unwanted" work out of nearly 100,000 workers on January 3 has laid the foundation for the second phase escalation on Monday January 6. The resumption of strike by the major manufacturing sector unions and the fresh participation of hundreds of white collar unions on January 6 will set the stage for a concerted effort of the KCTU to bring about the nullification of the new labour law and beginning of the work for a democratic enactment of a new labour law in compliance with international labour standards.

The Popular Support for the Historic General Strike

The KCTU-led general strike, the first since September general strike in 1946 under the Japanese colonial rule, sent seismic wave across the society. The fact that the government, despite repeated pronouncement of the intent to deal severely with the leaders of the strike, has so far "failed" to arrest any of the KCTU leaders is an indication of the widespread popular support for the general strike. Even the mass media, which tend to jump to knee- jerk reaction at any sign of industrial action, remained neutral, giving generally objective portrayal of the nation-wide general strike.

The broad based public support was clearly borne out by a public survey published in the Hankyereh, a major national daily, on December 31, 1996. A public opinion survey conducted by a gallop agency at the request of the major opposition political party, the National Congress for New Politics, found that 54.5% of the people surveyed supported the general strike calling for the nullification of the anti-democratic, anti-worker, and anti-union labour law bulldozed through the parliament.

KCTU Pays Special Attention to Public Needs

At the news conference held to make public the plan for the New Year's wave of general strike, president Kwon also announced that he has requested the subway and hospital workers to suspend their strike. The decision to send the public service workers back to work, reflecting the elastic strategy of general strike, was aimed at reducing the public disruption during the holiday period. As a result of the decision, unionists at the Seoul Subway and Pusan Subway returned to work immediately on December 30. The hospital workers returned to work from the morning of December 31.

The Surge of the First Wave General Strike

The general strike calling for the nullification of the 'new labour laws' commandeered by the ruling party was launched by the president Kwon Young-kil's declaration immediately after the news of the extraordinary passage of the labour law amendment bill.

The First Day

The first wave of general strike was kicked off by the Kia Motors Union, located in Sohwa-li, about one hour's distance from downtown Seoul. 17,000 members of the union began to assemble at the company ground as they reported to work. By 10 o'clock, the union held a mass meeting, led by the union president Lee Jae Seung, and began to converge on the Myongdong Cathedral in Seoul where the KCTU's leadership had set up the general strike headquarters.

At 10:30, unions at Hyosung Heavy Industry, Daeheung Machinery, Tong-il Heavy Industry, Korea Fukoku affiliated to the Korean Federation of Metalworkers Industry were out on strike. Member unions of the Korean Hospital Workers Unions and the Korean Federation of Professional and Technicians Unions completed union meetings to decide on strike. And the union at the Donsuh Food * the major coffee maker * led the Korean Council of Chemical Workers Unions into the general strike. The Federation of Hyundai Group Trade Unions completed the meeting to prepare for the strike set to begin on 1 p.m.

By 1 p.m., member unions of the Federation of Hyundai Group Trade Unions, the Korean Federation of Metalworkers Unions, the Federation of Automobile Workers Unions, completed the strike commencement rally at their own company grounds and began to converge at the various regional centres. Hyundai Motors, Hyundai Heavy Industry, Daewoo Heavy Industry, and other major manufacturing sector unions joined the strike. Some 4,000 workers had already converged on the Myongdong Catheral when the first public rally of the general strike got underway around 12 noon.

At the end of the day, the KCTU office in Samsun-dong Seoul was busy responding to the requests from journalists for the tally of striking unions and workers. The 10 p.m. tally confirmed the massive wave of the general strike that shocked not only the government and the mass media, but also the KCTU office staff. When the final tally for the first of the general strike was completed, a total of 95 unions with a total participation of 146,233 workers were out on the strike.

Furthermore, some 63 unions held meetings on December 26 deciding to join the general strike on the second day, December 27. A further 17 unions decided to join the strike wave by the third day.

On the first two days of the general strike, 80 out of the 110 member unions of the Korean Federation of Metalworkers Unions, totaling 71,831 workers, launched themselves into the general strike. 21 out of 34 member unions of the Korean Federation of Automobile Workers Unions, totaling 52,200 workers, also joined the strike march. 15 out of 94 member unions of the Korean Federation of Professional and Technicians Unions also joined the strike on the first two days. The Hyundai Group Trade Union Federation, which includes the Korea's largest car maker and world's largest shipyard, carried its weight in the general strike by bringing out a total of 79,901 workers from 13 out 20 member unions. Seoul Subway Workers Union, with a membership of 9,399 workers also decided to join the general strike on December 28.

The striking workers spilled out onto streets and converged in the various regional centres. In Inchon some 3,000 workers gathered at the Dong-Inchon Railway Station plaza; further 3,000 gathered at the Suwon Railway Station plaza while another 3,000 gathered at the Kwangju Railway Station plaza. The largest regional gatherings outside Seoul were in Ulsan and Masan-Changwon region where some 20,000 and 10,000 workers took part respectively.

The Second Day

The expansion of the general strike on the second day was led by hospital workers. 14 unions, including those at the Seoul University General Medical Centre, Ewha Women's University General Medical Centre, Inchon Red Cross General Medical Centre, totalling 14,000, joined the strike. The Korean Federation of Hospital Workers Unions decided to maintain the operations at the essential sections of the hospitals by staffing the emergency centres, intensive care units, operation threatres, and new born centres to minimise the effect of the strike for the in-patients and urgent out- patients.

Inspired by the recent strike of the French truck drivers, members of the 12 unions affiliated to the Korean Federation of Truck Drivers Unions, held a truck-parade along the main expressway. Some 200 trucks were involved in the demonstration. The low-speed driving by the truck drivers succeeded in slowing down the expressway.

On December 27, the Daewoo Motors joined the ranks of the striking workers, bringing the last of the 6 major Korean car makers into the historic general strike. With the additional surge, the tally of striking unions and unionists as the second day of the strike came to close increased to 163 unions and 206,220 workers.

Even further expansion of the general strike was foreshadowed on

December 27, as the unions in the four major television and ration networks resolved to join the strike march. Pusan Subway Workers Union also decided to join the strike.

The strike action was complemented by mass public rallies held across the nation. 35,000 striking workers gathered at the Yoido Plaza in Seoul. All together a total of more than 120,000 workers attended the public demonstrations held in 15 major cities.

The Third Day

The third day of the general strike, December 28, was led by the walk out of the Seoul Subway workers. As of 4 o'clock in the morning, nearly 8,000 members of the Seoul Subway Workers Union joined the general strike. The subway workers converged on the Myongdong Cathedral where the KCTU leadership was encamped.

The subway corporation responded by sending in non-union members and retired or unqualified employees as 'replacement labour' to continue the subway operations. In some cases, the former drivers who were now deployed in signal units, some maintenance workers who had little knowledge of driving were sent in to replace the striking workers.

Despite fear hyped up by media, the public remain generally supportive of the strike (indicating the general anger against the government). The public, however, were exposed to unnecessary danger by the management as inexperienced or unqualified drivers caused repeated small and large mistakes. In one case, a faulty manipulation of brake system by an unqualified driver left passengers trapped for one and half hours underground.

Workers at Kumho Tyre and three more hospitals joined the ranks of the general strike, bringing the tally of participating unions and workers to 177 and 221,720, respectively.

In the Saturday afternoon the striking workers were joined by ordinary citizens and members of various social organisations in the various regional public rallies. The third day was marked by another colourful demonstration. Some 2,000 cars carrying over 8,000 workers from 11 regions took to the expressway and kept a turtle pace on their way to Seoul. The vehicles were decorated with small placards, large stickers, and flags as they maintained the demonstration convey. The third day of the strike was marked by first incidence of 'violence'.

As some 20,000 workers and citizens began to march following a mass meeting in downtown Seoul, riot police fired barrage of tear gas into the peaceful marchers. The rallyists were scattered by the stunning effect of the police action. However, the incident of violence instigated by police fizzled out as marchers calmed regrouped in smaller numbers and continued on with their march.

The incident reflected the determination of the KCTU leadership to uphold the principle of peaceful action against any kind of police provocation. Some local and foreign media jumped on the scene as a replay of some past scenes of violence * perhaps the recent student demonstration for reunification. However, the attempt to portray * or provoke -- the general strike as a rampant deluge of violence failed miserably as ranks of workers and supporting citizens kept peace.

The Fourth Day

The main addition to the general strike on Sunday, December 29, the fourth day of the general strike was the Pusan Subway Workers Union. The Pusan subway workers left their positions at 4 in the morning, bringing * together with 2 other unions which joined the strike this day * the total to 180 unions and 223,831 unionists out on the general strike.

Sunday saw the continuation of open mass meetings of workers and citizens in continuation of the popular activities conducted by striking unions from the first day. Some 25,000 workers and citizens took part in a mass rally in Yoido Plaza before the National Assembly building. At the end of the public meeting, people marched to encircle the ruling party's office building.

The historic general strike provided a unique opportunity to the new generation who has found in the computer communication a new arena and vehicle of protest action. The various forums set up in the cyberspace were dominated by expression of criticism of the government and support for the general strike. A number of groups quickly organised a public awareness drive and a petition campaign in support of the general strike, and a "black ribbon" campaign to mourn the death of democracy in the computer communication network. Since the beginning of the general strike on December 26, more than 6,000 messages supporting the strike were registered in three discussion forums.

The Fifth Day

The fifth day, December 30, marked a turning point for the general strike. At 11 o'clock in the morning, the KCTU president Kwon Young-kil announced the plan for the second wave of general strike.

President Kwon, coming from an overnight meeting of the entire KCTU leadership, called for a temporary suspension of the general strike for the New Year's Day holiday period. Furthermore, he called for an immediate return to work for the subway workers. The plan also allowed the hospital workers to return to their service by the morning of December 31.

The return to work decision stemmed from the consideration for public safety and emergency needs over the holiday period. The incident that kept hundreds of subway passengers trapped underground for one and half hour required the trade union movement to employ a flexible strategy in involving the public utilities unions in the general strike.

The announcement of the plan for a temporary suspension and second wave general strike provoked the media speculation about the momentum of the KCTU's general strike. President Kwon, however, made explicit that the temporary suspension did not signify an end to the general strike. This was borne out by the fact that the participating unions, by the end of the day, increased to 190. As a result of the new entrants, the number of workers participating in the general strike remained at 213,027 despite the return to work by two large subway workers unions.

The fifth day of general strike reached new heights as more than 100,000 workers in some 20 major cities across the country took part in mass rallies. Workers in many of the cities held street marches and protest rallies in front of the regional offices of the ruling New Korea Party.

The fifth day also saw the indications of the types of "reprisals" against the striking unionists. Police issued subpoena to the leaders of 7 unions in Inchon region claiming that there was no permission for assembly and demonstration for the December 26th public rally in Inchon region. The management the Hyundai Heavy Industry filed legal suit against 12 union leaders of the Hyundai Heavy Industry Union for interference with business. This will form a general trend as the general strike goes on. While some KCTU leaders may be arrested and imprisoned for leading "illegal strike", other will be charged with civil legal suit which opens the way for police intervention, and some others will be taken in for "illegal" assembly and demonstration.

The plan for three phase escalation of the second wave general strike began to materialise laying all the fears to rest on January 3, 1997, as nearly 100,000 workers resumed their battle positions in what is expected to be an intensified round of confrontation between the unionists and the recalcitrant and conniving government.

The Sixth Day, Adieu 1996

The theme for the sixth day of the general strike was "farewell to 1996". Unionists gathered in different major cities to hold new year's day eve celebration. In Seoul unionists and citizens joined together in an evening of cultural event at the Myongdong Cathedral. The celebration, prepared by various cultural movement groups, reached its highlight when three thousand of people waved candle light as one in tune with songs expressing the spirit of workers' struggle.

After the celebration, the unionists and citizens marched out of Myongdong area towards the Boshin-gak, the bell that sounds the beginning of a new year. As they tried march police fired barrage of tear gas to prevent their participation in the Boshin-gak ceremony which is traditionally attended by thousands of people and broadcast live on television. Despite the police blockade, the unionists and citizens various detour to reach the Boshin-gak area in small groups of threes and fours. They were able to regroup and furl open large number of placards calling for the nullification of the anti-democratic and anti-worker labour law.

The Seventh Day, the New Year's Day

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, leading the historic general strike, celebrated the new year's day by holding traditional new year's day festivals in the major cities. Unionists and citizens took part in various traditional games and cultural activities. One unique and non-tradition game in which unionists threw themselves with all their zeal and enthusiasm was dart. The dart board was covered with a caricature of typical capitalist, politician, and the president. Unionists also enjoyed themselves by taking part in various "star search contests".

The Eighth Day

The KCTU leadership, led by president Kwon Young-kil, held a news conference on January 2, 1997, the eighth day of the general strike to clarify the plan of action and the demand and goal of the general strike. The news conference, in one aspect, was prompted by the sudden promulgation, on December 31, 1996, of the amended labour law.

President Kwon reiterated the KCTU demand for the nullification of the labour law and a new round of democratic discussions, involving all political parties, government, employers, and trade unions. He called for the resignation of the entire cabinet led by Prime Minister Lee Soo-sung and the Chairman of the ruling New Korea Party, Mr Lee Hong-koo. He outlined the plan for the second wave of general strike to start from January 3 if the government fails to respond to the KCTU demands. A plan for series of protest visits to the local branch offices of the ruling party, a nation-wide petition campaign denouncing the ruling New Korea Party and for enactment of a new genuine labour law was revealed at the news conference.

President Kwon warned that a failure for the government to initiate a new round of public and official discussions for new genuine labour law will lead to a concerted trade union political campaign against the ruling party in the upcoming presidential election late this year.

The International Uproar and Solidarity

The workers participating in various union meetings and regional rallies in the general strike were given added strength by the news of solidarity actions and messages undertaken and conveyed by various international trade union organisations. The extraordinary international apprehension at the bulldozing of the bills in pre-dawn secret meeting of the National Assembly by the ruling party in the absence of the opposition members as indicated by series of protest letters and the news coverage by the international media, such as, the front page article in the Washington Post and the week-long coverage of the historic general strike by the New York Times was, to some degree, was responsible for the "absence" of immediate crackdown on the general strike by the government.

The announcements at the public rallies of letters of solidarity from ICFTU-APRO, JTUC-Rengo, IMF East Asia Office, IMF-JC were received with great applause. The protest statements from the ICFTU, the president John Sweeney of AFL-CIO, the protest letter of president Dieter Schulte of the DGB of Germany to the Korean government gave the striking workers a new sense of strength.

The solidarity messages were especially valuable as Korean unionists were keenly aware that most of the trade union centres overseas were out on Christmas-New Year holidays.

The announcement of the ICFTU's filing of a complaint against the Korean government's 'new' labour law to the ILO and the decision by the TUAC to request the early meeting of the monitoring body of the OECD gave the striking workers a new sense of legitimacy for their struggle, and added an international dimension to their struggle.

The timely meeting of the OECD monitoring body on the labour law reform in Korea and the planned visit to Korea by an international delegation of observers organised by the International Confederation of Trade Unions and the Trade Union Advisory Committee are expected to be vital as the general strike extends into its second and third week. The significance of international solidarity will increase as the likelihood of "crackdown" and "reprisal" against the massive "illegal strike" looms closer in the second and third week of the general strike.

Korean unionists have come to learn, from the various protest letters and solidarity messages, that they are not alone in their struggle. This gave an international dimension to their struggle. This was highlighted by new knowledge that similar kind of battles are being fought out in various parts of the world -- even in those countries which were once believed to have achieved all there was to achieve for workers' rights and welfare * in countries like Australia, Germany, France, and United States. This has given them, in rather ironic way, a sense of being pioneers in this world-wide struggle, giving them a greater determination.

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