Sep 27, 2009
The following article was first published by the comrades of Workers’ Fight, in Britain, in issue #85 of their political journal, Class Struggle.
The global economic crisis, especially after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, has dealt a double blow to the Korean economy, over and above the impact of the financial crisis itself, due to its overwhelming dependence on exports. These exports account for two thirds of the country’s GDP.
On the one hand, the fall of the dollar put Korean exporters in a difficult position with respect to their two largest export markets – China and the U.S. – where trade is carried out in dollars. On the other hand, overall demand for Korean exports shrank abruptly, as foreign customers anticipated the impact of the crisis by cancelling existing orders and cutting back on new ones. In the fourth quarter of 2008 alone, the country’s GDP dropped by almost 5% – the largest drop among the industrialized countries. For the first time since Korea was transformed into an export-oriented economy by the ruling dictatorship in the 1960s, exports began to fall. By August of this year, the monthly volume of exports had dropped by over 20% compared to August 2008.
The capitalist class and the Grand National Party administration of right-wing president Lee Myong Bak reacted to this situation with the ruthlessness that has characterized social relations in South Korea. Just as in the other industrialized countries, the resources of the state were put at the service of the profiteers, with no strings attached, and the working class was presented with a rapidly increasing bill to pay for the crisis. But in South Korea, the result was open confrontation, with workers trying to oppose the bosses’ offensive, leading to the 77-day occupation at the Ssangyong Motors factory, in Pyeongtaek. Despite the determination of the workers, this struggle ended in defeat, due not only to the ruthlessness of the attacks, but also to the failure of their leaders to take to the offensive.
In the earlier stage of the crisis, when the dollar began to fall on the world currency markets, the Korean central bank embarked on a systematic drive to ensure that the Korean won would not only follow the dollar in its fall, but that it would actually fall slightly more. The government was killing two birds with one stone: it was protecting the competitiveness of Korean exports in dollar-trading markets; and, by increasing the local price of imports, it was protecting Korean companies against their foreign rivals in its domestic market. But, of course, this protectionist policy came at a cost, which fell on Korean consumers in the form of a price hike for everything that was not produced locally – like gasoline. As always in such a case, the burden was disproportionally highest for the poorest.
Meanwhile, Korean companies started to cut costs by targeting jobs. Temporary workers, who make up over half of the employed workforce (mostly as on-site contractors) were the first casualties. Although the number of these job cuts must have been very large, judging from the thousands cut by the biggest companies, there are no figures available for these layoffs. They don’t appear in unemployment figures. When temporary workers lose their jobs, in most cases they remain technically employed by a contractor, reputedly on “standby” waiting for a job, and therefore are not included in the jobless figures. As a result, they get the worst of both worlds – having no assignment, they have no wages, but since they are not considered unemployed, they have no access to the very minimal unemployment benefit system.
The temporary workers who keep their jobs face a drive by the bosses and government to cut their already very low income (around half that for permanent workers in the big companies, but usually much less in the smaller ones). One of the weapons in this drive is the national minimum wage. It was introduced in 1998, in the aftermath of the Southeast Asian financial crisis, as a quid-pro-quo for allowing the bosses to legally employ temporary labor. But this minimum wage was applicable only in workplaces with 10 employees or more, and it was far too low to live on, thereby forcing temporary workers to work massive overtime. And it was never upgraded in line with the income of permanent workers – which is why it remains today at 4,000 won per hour ($3.42), or less than 20% of the hourly income (inclusive of all bonuses and premiums) of a permanent line worker in the big car manufacturing companies.
This year, in the annual negotiations for upgrading the minimum wage, the bosses demanded that its nominal value should be cut by 6%. Nevertheless, in June, the Minimum Wage Council finally voted to increase the minimum wage but only by 110 won per hour (9¢), much less than inflation. However, even this paltry increase, which should come into force in 2010, has still to be endorsed by the Labor ministry – and many doubt that this will happen. What is not in doubt, though, is the government’s plan to introduce legislation that will further undermine the minimum wage by introducing regional variations, increasing the probation period required before workers are entitled to it, including in its calculation the cost of food and accommodation provided by the employer, and by cutting its level for more than four million workers between the ages of 60 and 79. If this legislation goes through, it will result in a significant cut in the standard of living of the poorest.
What has been the policy of the trade-union movement regarding this drive against temporary workers? Predictably, the larger of the two trade-union confederations, the pro-business, pro-government, anti-strike FKTU, did nothing at all. However, the KCTU, the confederation which still represents the militant tradition of the “democratic unions” born out of the working class uprising of the late 1980s, did not come up with much more than symbolic gestures of protest either.
Not that there was no opposition to the temporary workers’ layoffs. In many companies, laid off workers staged sit-ins and protests outside the premises, sometimes for weeks or months – often facing regular confrontations with the riot police, arrest, and in some cases jail sentences. And in most cases this resistance was organized, or at least backed up, by KCTU activists.
The KCTU could have used its influence among permanent workers to popularize the idea that permanent workers’ jobs would be next on the bosses’ hit-list – and that therefore, they should consider themselves in the same boat as temporary workers and block the bosses’ attacks more effectively by joining ranks with their fellow workers in the fight against job cuts. Yet, significantly, there were very few instances of any KCTU union doing this.
There are certainly historical reasons for this failure. The KCTU was originally formed by company-based unions that sprang up among permanent workers in the largest workplaces, especially in the large factories of the “chaebols” – Korea’s giant industrial conglomerates, such as Hyundai, Kia, LG, Posco, Samsung. These unions concentrated their efforts on their respective strongholds where their influence has remained largely unchallenged.
The chaebols, however, were quick to realize that the best way to protect themselves against the militancy of the workforce was to give the KCTU machinery a stake in defending the status quo, offering them all kinds of perks and facilities. For instance, closed-shop agreements, which provided the unions with a stable membership, became the rule. Meanwhile most union officials and elected reps were put on the companies’ payrolls as full-timers, thereby making them less dependent on members’ support.
The chaebols followed a parallel policy aimed at driving a wedge between permanent and temporary workers. The number of temporaries greatly increased after the 1997 financial crash. Not only were temporary workers paid far less than their permanent workmates, but they rarely enjoyed any of the benefits attached to permanent jobs, such as regular wage increases based on seniority, annual bonuses (often worth as much as two months wages), paid vacations, or help with school fees and housing costs. Above all, the bosses managed to entrench the idea that temporary workers were a potential threat to permanent workers’ conditions and jobs.
The status quo instituted by the bosses was, therefore, based on a two-tier workforce in which relatively well-paid permanent workers enjoyed the best conditions, including the right to be represented by a union with some bargaining power, while low-paid, overworked temporary workers, with no rights, provided the bosses a flexible pool of disposable workers so they could rapidly adjust workforce levels as they needed.
The KCTU unions certainly bear a heavy responsibility for allowing the bosses to create this division in the workforce. On paper, they made a stand against the rise of casualization in the late 1990s, but they never went so far as to put at risk the status quo with the bosses – a status quo which, after all, provided the union machineries with a guaranteed membership. And once casualization had become a fait accompli, they rarely challenged the anti-temporary prejudices of the permanent workforce.
Only recently have attempts been made by KCTU activists to organize temporary workers, either separately or in the same unions as permanent workers, in some companies. But these attempts have remained isolated and, in most cases, they have come up against great difficulties, in particular due to the fact that any organizing activity among temporaries has to be carried out clandestinely due to the bosses’ repression.
But the KCTU leadership has shown no interest in such an orientation. Over the past decade, the main thrust of its strategy has been to try to maintain, and if possible increase, its social weight by institutional means, rather than by relying on working class militancy to expand its social base. This resulted, in the late 1990s, in its disastrous involvement in a national Tripartite council, whose main role was actually to back up the bosses in their profit drive. During the same period, a political offshoot of the KCTU was formed – the KDLP or Korean Democratic Labor Party – whose objective was primarily to increase the leverage of the KCTU’s machinery within the elected institutions of the state, both on a national and on a local level. But the KDLP never managed to make a significant breakthrough at the ballot box.
Along the same lines, the KCTU union leaders have shown far less concern for the attacks on temporary workers than for the threat represented by a newly drafted law that will make some of their own present perks illegal – in particular the payment of union full-timers’ wages by companies and the existing practice of single-union recognition. Obviously this legislation is aimed at weakening the KCTU’s grip on the big industrial facilities. But the panic it causes among the KCTU leaders also reveals the Achilles’ heel of a trade-union machinery that no longer thinks its existence should depend primarily on the conscious involvement of rank-and-file workers.
Undoubtedly the next step in the bosses’ offensive is to attack the jobs of permanent workers, especially in the very large companies. Contrary to the illusion implicitly encouraged by the KCTU union bureaucrats, the so-called “cushion” of “disposable” temporary workers will not save permanent workers’ jobs, certainly not without a fight.
In fact the bosses have already turned up the heat on permanent workers, in the form of what is described as “job sharing.” Behind this innocuous phrase lies the idea that workers should make sacrifices to stop joblessness among young people entering the labor market, by allowing “new jobs” to be created. This is a hypocritical joke since there are never as many of the so-called “new jobs” as the ones left vacant by workers’ normal turnover.
These “sacrifices” come in all sorts of flavors. In many companies, for instance, new recruits are treated differently than the existing workforce – their wages are lower than normal starting rates (by as much as 25% in the public sector). New workers don’t get some company benefits, such as annual bonuses, for the first year or more. An increasingly frequent form of hiring of skilled workers is that of “internships,” whereby new “hires” are granted the “privilege” of working without a wage, for from six months to two years, in return for the promise of a permanent job at the end of the period “if” both employee and employer are “satisfied with the arrangement.” And that’s a very big “if.” In fact, these “internships” are in great favor with the Ministry of Labor, which portrays them as some kind of “patriotic” commitment to the Korean economy on the part of employer and employee alike!
For existing permanent workers, “job sharing” means anything from outright wage cuts to compulsory unpaid leave, voluntary retirement (with no immediate pension, just a small severance payment), the cancellation of bonuses and/or overtime premiums, cuts in working hours with the corresponding cut in wages, etc.
So far, job cuts among permanent workers have been limited to small and medium-sized companies. The government’s official line has been that “job sharing” among permanent workers would avoid any need for the chaebols to cut their jobs – unlike what is happening in Europe and the U.S. – offered by the regime as evidence of the superiority of the Korean “economic model.”
However, there is no shortage of experts and politicians arguing in the Korean press that it is high time the “privileges” of industrial workers were cut down to size, and the status quo inherited from the previous decades ended. The squeeze on profit margins caused by the shrinkage of the country’s export markets can only encourage the bosses to go down that road.
But for the “chaebols” to attack, head-on, the permanent workers’ jobs in their biggest factories is probably not so simple. The country’s largest factories, like Hyundai Motors (car assembly) and Hyundai Heavy Industries (shipyards), in the southern city of Ulsan (the historical heartland of the uprising of the 1980s), still have respectively around 45,000 and 55,000 workers. Kia, Korea’s second largest car manufacturer, has a network of plants covering the country with from 5,000 to 12,000 workers in each. An explosion of anger in these plants could spell real trouble for the bosses and the government. The memories of the reaction triggered by an attempt at relatively modest job cuts at Hyundai Motors in 1998, which resulted in a month-long shutdown of the giant factory and violent confrontations in the streets of Ulsan, still serve as a warning to the bosses.
The government and the bosses try to use every opportunity to hammer home the idea that resistance is at best pointless for workers, and at worst, too costly to be worth the pain. This strategy seems to have underpinned the government’s policy in the confrontation at Ssangyong Motors earlier this year.
Ssangyong Motors was originally part of one of Korea’s chaebols, one that collapsed following the 1997 financial crisis. Most of its divisions were sold to other players. Ssangyong Motors, the country’s fifth largest manufacturer, was taken over by Daewoo. But, in 2002, the state-owned Chinese company, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) bought 51% of the company, which it kept at arms-length as a Korean subsidiary. What was left of the company was an assembly plant producing top-of-the-line SUVs and sedans, employing 5,100 manual workers organized in the KCTU, at Pyeongtaek, a town located 40 miles south of Seoul; and a small engine plant, at Changwon, with only 400 workers. In January this year, with the market for expensive cars significantly reduced, SAIC put Ssangyong Motors into bankruptcy.
In response to SAIC’s filing, the authorities agreed to suspend liabilities while new sources of finance were found. At the same time the company was invited to produce a program of “savings” – meaning, of course, job cuts. The KMWU, the KCTU metal workers’ federation, agreed to play ball in this game, for the sake of seeking a “viable industrial solution.” The union’s official line was that the government should inject public funds into the ailing company in order to preserve all jobs and restore its viability as a profit-making business. However, the KMWU never bothered to explain how a government, clearly bent on countering any resistance from the working class, would ever agree to a job-saving deal. Moreover, the union’s choice to link jobs to profitability amounted to an acceptance that workers should in some way share the burden of the company’s losses. Against the backdrop of the crisis, this strategy took workers down a slippery road that could only lead, first, to bargaining for “job sharing” instead of outright dismissals, and then, from this position of weakness, to engaging in horse-trading over the number of jobs to be “restored” at some future hypothetical point, when profitability might return – which was precisely what happened.
On April 8th, the company announced that 2,646 jobs would have to go. This was meant to include an unknown number of potential applicants for a “voluntary retirement” scheme. The KMWU local responded by calling for work stoppages against layoffs. These were solid. A vote was organized in support of further strike action. At this stage the entire plant workforce was united in its opposition to the company’s threats, which appeared to everyone as an outright provocation, and the vote in favor of a strike won an impressive 86% majority.
The Korean government seems to have seen this development as a golden opportunity for a demonstration of strength. After all, ministers were in a position to dictate whatever course was to be pursued by the company. Besides, although the Pyeongtaek plant was quite large, it was the only large factory in the group, so that if a confrontation did take place, it would be confined to this factory only – at least, as long as it did not spread to other companies. Finally, the fact that the company was in bankruptcy turned it into a “special case,” with which workers in the rest of the car industry were less likely to identify. Under these “favorable conditions,” the government decided to take on the Ssangyong permanent workers, with a chance of imposing a spectacular defeat on them – spectacular enough, in any case, to undermine the workers’ morale in other big industrial factories.
On the other hand, the KMWU seems to have been unable to see what the government was preparing for it. Instead of considering the 86% strike vote as a clear mandate from workers to prepare for a fight, the KMWU leaders tried to use the vote as a bargaining chip in the on-going negotiations. But neither the bankruptcy administrators, nor the government behind them, were likely to be very impressed by a strike vote, not followed by real action. A race for time had begun, between the company and the workers. But in this race, while the company was busy eroding the workers’ potential for resistance by enticing as many of them as possible to opt for “voluntary retirement,” the KMWU was still trying to avoid a head-on confrontation by pursuing the mirage of a government-backed “viable solution.”
On May 7th, 3,300 Ssangyong workers joined a rally at the plant. But not until May 21st did the plant’s KMWU local call an indefinite strike and, the next day, occupy the plant. Six weeks had been wasted since the April strike vote. By that time, about 900 workers had already been pressured into taking “voluntary retirement” and, having taken this step, were unlikely to feel they had any stake in a fight back. Many probably blamed the union for the loss of their jobs. The rest of the workers had been kept waiting for weeks with no prospect other than the hope that something would eventually materialize out of endless negotiations. Many probably felt they had been led down the garden path by the KMWU. And the company’s blackmail – the threat that they might all lose their jobs if the job cuts were not accepted – gained ground.
Nevertheless, over a thousand workers occupied the plant on May 22nd, prompting Ssangyong to declare a lockout nine days later, although the strikers never left the plant. On June 2nd, the company released a list of around 1,000 workers to be permanently laid off. A committee formed by activists of the factory’s KMWU local, including most of the local officials, responded by declaring an occupation of the plant “to the finish.” For once, albeit far too late, the national leaders of the KMWU endorsed this decision to fight back – although, as we shall see, their support remained largely token.
For the first three weeks of the occupation, the company and the government played a waiting game, which gave the strikers time to get themselves organized. However, the company several times mobilized hired thugs, managers and non-strikers (2,000 to 3,000 people in total) to force their way into the plant and dislodge the strikers. But they all failed. Despite this on-going pressure, the strikers, whose numbers had stabilized around a thousand, stuck to their guns – which was probably not what the company hoped for. However these deliberately spectacular attacks highlighted the isolation of the strikers – even if, on several occasions, hundreds of workers from nearby factories, including Kia’s large Hwaseong factory, and activists coming from as far as Hyundai Motors, in Ulsan, came to the rescue of the strikers, breaking their encirclement.
In mid-June, however, the government joined the fray. Lawsuits were filed against 190 strikers. The police went on the offensive on June 26. On that day, the Yonhap press agency claimed that as many as 20,000 police had been gathered in Pyeongtaek, which probably indicates the extent of the problems anticipated by the authorities and shows that they did not want to take any chances. A massive force of police intervened to help 2,000 company thugs and non-striking workers break into the plant and occupy its main building. For over 24 hours, there was a fierce battle between the two sides and many were injured. At the end of this battle, the strikers made what their leaders described as a “tactical move” – they barricaded themselves into the factory’s paint shop. KMWU leaders explained that by staying in the building that stocked large quantities of toxic products, the strikers were taking an insurance policy against the risk of another police attack – although this turned out to be a miscalculation in the end.
The following month’s occupation was a harrowing experience. Throughout July, the strikers were under permanent siege, both from the company thugs and the police. The number of strikers involved in the occupation was going down, first to 600-800 and then 450 by the end of the strike. The siege was progressively tightened. Food supplies were completely stopped in mid-July, followed by cut-offs of water and gas supplies. On July 20, thousands of police resumed their offensive, which, this time, was to last seven days and nights. The strikers managed to keep them at bay by throwing heavy bolts at them, using giant slingshots. Some gasoline bombs were used as well. But the police responded in kind, using helicopters to drop on the strikers huge quantities of liquid containing diluted tear-gas and other components which caused skin burns on contact. Long-distance taser guns were used to try to reach the strikers who were defending the paint shop from the rooftop. At night, the deafening noise of helicopters hovering constantly over the paint shop made it virtually impossible to sleep. By the end of the week, an estimated 200 strikers had been injured, some very seriously, and their condition was deteriorating as police allowed neither medical supplies nor doctors into the occupied paint shop.
There was a short breathing space, as police held back while negotiations resumed between the KMWU and the company. But as soon as these broke down, the attacks restarted. Electric power was cut off to the paint shop. It took another five days of the same round-the-clock warfare before an “agreement” was finally reached, on August 5, resulting in an immediate end to the occupation. But as workers left, company thugs went on the rampage, beating up strikers, while many workers were arrested.
This “agreement,” dictated by the company at a time when the strikers were in a desperate position, made no concessions to their demands. In summary, it provided that 52% of the workers concerned would be allowed to take “voluntary retirement” while the remaining 48% would be allowed to take unpaid leave or to transfer to sales positions – but even the KMWU negotiators were unable to clarify whether this deal applied to all the remaining 974 laid-off workers (who had not applied for retirement) or only to the 450 strikers! Ssangyong granted most of them a “generous” two-month voluntary retirement allowance (insulting by any standards). Workers transferring to sales positions (who would become self-employed, with an income depending entirely on their sales figures) would be guaranteed a ridiculous minimum monthly income of 500,000 won ($427). In case the company’s financial situation improved within a year, it would consider inviting laid-off workers to re-apply for a job, on a part-time basis at first, depending on production requirements. That was it. After 77 days of this bitter siege, the strikers came out with virtually nothing, neither with jobs, nor above all, with an income they could live on for the foreseeable future.
There was an additional cynical twist to this outcome. A provision in the agreement said, according to the KCTU: “The management will withdraw criminal proceedings against the trade union and its members in order to encourage goodwill.... Civil liability will be also called off when the company’s revival plan is approved.” Whether Ssangyong will stick to this commitment remains to be seen. But whether it does or not, some of the strikers already stand to pay a heavy price for their defiance. Ninety-six strikers were thrown straight into jail as the plant was being evacuated. More arrest warrants have been issued. The police made no secret of the fact that the jailed strikers would face criminal and civil charges for staging an “illegal” strike, attacking security forces, causing “damage” to government equipment and casualties among police, etc. There is no limit to the charges the justice machinery of the capitalist class can invent when it comes to taking revenge on the working class.
The agreement that concluded the strike was a vengeful blow aimed at punishing the strikers for daring to oppose the bosses’ decrees – and not just a punishment for today, but one which was designed to leave lasting memories among their ranks.
Beyond this, the policy of the government, especially the brutality of the police, was, from beginning to end, aimed not just at the strikers, but at the working class as a whole. In and of itself, this strike was nothing exceptional. Strikers do occupy factories from time to time in South Korea, without the police resorting to such excessive violence. But if the state made such a spectacular demonstration of strength, it was not for nothing. The unprecedented TV and media coverage of the strike spread pictures and videos of the horrendous situation of the strikers, trapped in this small building without food, water or fuel, attacked day and night by a vastly larger number of police using heavy wartime equipment. It was blatantly designed to hammer home the message that workers do not have the means to resist the frontal assault of a sophisticated, modern state machinery. The government wanted to etch it into the collective consciousness of the working class that resisting the bosses’ offensive is just too painful to be worth it. And the police did everything possible to achieve this objective.
This demonstration of strength against the working class was made possible by the direction into which the fight was channeled at Ssangyong by the KCTU-KMWU leaders. These leaders themselves may end up paying a very high price for their policies, through heavy jail sentences and crippling civil damages.
Was it inevitable that the confrontation at Ssangyong should take the form it did – with a few hundred workers, out of a workforce of over 6,000, trapped in a siege for over two months, in complete isolation from the rest of the working class and forced to confront the full power of the state machinery on their own? No one can say, even in hindsight, that another course of action would have been successful, or even possible. But the fact is that little was done to prevent the noose of the state from being tightened around the Ssangyong workers’ necks.
In the initial phase of the dispute, between January, when the company went into bankruptcy with a plan to cut jobs, and April, when the 2,646 job cuts were formally announced, Ssangyong was only one among many companies in which workers’ jobs and conditions were threatened in the bosses’ offensive. It might have been possible then, during these first three months, to build up a campaign aimed at mobilizing the entire Ssangyong workforce against this threat, and also aimed at preparing them for the idea that in order to be successful, their struggle would have to spread beyond Ssangyong, as part of a wider counter-offensive.
It was not as if the Ssangyong plant existed in a vacuum. There were a number of large car factories relatively close to Pyeongtaek, where workers were facing attacks on wages and work patterns – like the two Kia factories at Kwangju and Hwaseong or the Hyundai factory at Asan. One of the three KMWU-organized factories of Kumho Tires was in Pyeongtaek itself. (Kumho is Korea’s second largest tire manufacturer, with a 4000-strong workforce, whose output goes almost entirely to the country’s own car plants.) Given Kumho’s long-standing record, it was predictable that it would go on the offensive sooner rather than later. A dispute was also brewing with Korea Express, one of the big companies in over-the-road trucking, which was trying to blackmail its contract truck drivers into accepting reduced conditions by threatening job losses, while attacking the activists of their KCTU-affiliated union.
Despite the KCTU’s rhetorical threat to respond to the bosses’ attacks with a “general strike,” no initiative was taken. The issue was not that of a general strike, anyway. The problem was to prepare the ground for a fight, cutting across the sectional barriers between workers from the different companies and industries, on the basis of common objectives against the bosses’ offensive. Instead, the union machinery stuck blindly to these sectional divisions. At Ssangyong, the union machinery called “warning” work stoppages, designed to convince the bosses the union is an “indispensable partner,” not to build up the workers’ morale in preparation for a fight, let alone to help them measure the strength which comes from joining ranks across different companies.
By April, when the extent of the job cuts was announced, the solid support for strike action at Ssangyong showed a united and determined workforce. But the same narrow sectional policy of the union apparatus resulted in an endless search for a “viable industrial solution” – as if a government, intent on crushing the working class’ resistance, was likely to yield an inch without the workers making a massive display of strength! Yet there was no shortage of warning signals. If nothing else, by mid-May, the brutal repression of a protest by KCTU truck drivers outside the headquarters of Korea Express – in which 150 were injured and 457 arrested – showed what the regime had in store. And this was hardly the only case. On this occasion, the KCTU truck drivers (whose regional president had just committed suicide as a protest against the bosses’ repression), could have used reinforcement from other workers from the area – from Ssangyong among others. But this was not on the KCTU’s agenda.
Among the Ssangyong workforce itself, there had been no attempt by the union apparatus at preparing workers for what was coming. Turning the official “job sharing” scheme into something that might have been to the workers’ advantage – job sharing between all existing workers, with a reduced working week and no loss of pay – was never even considered, no doubt because the union did not see it as a “viable” profit-making “solution”! Likewise, the 1,500 or so who, under managers’ pressure, took “voluntary retirement” and the miserly payment that went with it, were never offered any alternative by the union. Yet, if the state could fork out trillions of won for Korean bankers and bosses, why not also for workers forced into retirement by the economic crisis? The remaining workers were left waiting, without understanding much about the twists and turns of the horse-trading taking place behind closed doors. Above all, they were not prepared for the likelihood that this charade had no purpose other than to allow the company to gain time.
By the time six weeks later, when the truth finally broke out, and even more so, when the list of laid-off workers was published, there were deep divisions in the ranks of the workers, instead of the unity and strength that had prevailed in April. It is significant, for instance, that among those who took part in the occupation, the overwhelming majority were on the list of laid-off workers. Among the workers who had been told that their jobs were safe and who were waiting at home for production to resume, few came back to the plant during its occupation to express their sympathy for the strikers. Many, in fact, took part in the company’s stage-managed “return to work.” Some even joined the bosses’ thugs and managerial staff in attacks against the strikers.
Yet, these workers’ jobs were only as safe as Ssangyong’s word, which was not worth much. At best, what was in store for them was a big turn of the screw to get the same production out of fewer workers. In fact, after production resumed following the end of the strike, the company boasted of having increased productivity by nearly 30%! Was it too late, when the occupation began, for the strikers to regain the active support of at least a part of these workers? It is impossible to say in hindsight. But, the objective of trying to win these workers to the strikers’ side was not put at the top of the strike’s agenda right from the beginning. Occupying such a large plant with a limited number of people meant that it would not have been easy; everyone had to be on-site in case of an attempt to evict the strikers. But the fact is, that despite some limited attempts in reaching other workers, it was never tried as a matter of priority.
The choice of occupying the plant was a dangerous one if, as the odds indicated, the government wanted a full-scale confrontation. Not only did the occupation make it very difficult for workers to address themselves to the rest of the factory’s workforce, it made it impossible for them to join up with workers from other plants in order to make their common demands against the bosses’ attacks heard in the streets. But union officials were satisfied with the demonstrations of symbolic “solidarity” which were staged periodically outside the gates of the factory – sometimes by contingents of trade union activists coming from other plants, but more often than not by supporters of all sorts of left, religious or human rights organizations. This kind of “solidarity,” reassuring as it may have been given the strikers’ isolation, could not have much weight in the test of force with the bosses and their regime.
Once the police intervened en masse to besiege the strikers day and night, the strikers were caught in a nightmarish trap. The fact that, even then, they held out for so long against all odds is certainly a measure of their determination. But, by this time, the strike had turned into a desperate struggle. In the end, the strike was defeated. And what a terrible waste of the strikers’ fighting spirit, when with a different policy, from the early days of the build-up to their struggle, they could have used that spirit to boost their numbers, joining ranks with others, and perhaps force the government into retreat!
This was a defeat for the Ssangyong workers, but also for the working class in general, and it was certainly felt as such by many workers. No matter how outraged they were by police violence, it must have been hard not to feel demoralized by this defeat. Although it is too early to measure its impact on the morale of workers, let alone on the class struggle itself, what happened at the Kumho Tires company shows that there are indeed consequences.
While the Ssangyong strike was still on, in July, Kumho Tires had tried to blackmail workers by threatening to lay off 700 of them permanently unless they agreed to a wage freeze, changes in work rules and cuts in benefits. A warning strike was called at the company’s three plants in late July. In late August, workers went on strike again, occupying the three plants. But, with its confidence boosted by the outcome of the Ssangyong strike, the company responded by releasing a list of 700 workers due to be permanently laid off on September 4th, declaring a lockout the next day. Within days, the Kumho workers gave up any resistance and voted to accept the company’s initial blackmail.
Whether the defeat of the Ssangyong strike has more far-reaching consequences – whether the regime will have succeeded in making an example which is spectacular enough to discourage workers from resisting the bosses’ offensive – remains to be seen. After all, not only has the Korean working class a long experience of confronting the brutality of the state apparatus, but the Korean bosses also have a long record of triggering explosions of anger by just going too far in turning the screw on the working class. But whatever happens, one must hope that the drastic lesson of the Ssangyong strike will be remembered – that against the bosses’ offensive, the best defense for the working class is to go on the offensive as well, using all the forces it can mobilize.