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Korean Strike Against Arrests and Neoliberalism

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10 August, 2005ICEM News release No. 42/2001

Workers across South Korea held strikes and demonstrations today.

Chemical workers were to the fore in the protests, which were called by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) to "bring an end to state violence and the attempt to destroy the democratic trade union movement represented by the KCTU."

WANTED: Police have distributed leaflets calling for the arrest of KCTU President Dan Byung-Ho. (photo: KCTF)

47 Korean workers have been imprisoned since June because of their trade union activities, the KCTU reports. Warrants are out for another fifty, including KCTU President Dan Byung-ho and General Secretary Lee Hong-woo.

If the government wants "a process of consultation and consensus," the KCTU said, then "it would need to revoke the current orders of arrest issued against the key KCTU leadership, including President Dan." The launching of a dialogue could "end the escalation of confrontation," the union centre stated.

Strikers in Korea today. The KCTU put the turnout at 80,000. (photo: KCTF)

Violent police tactics against striking workers all over Korea have provoked national and international protests. The repression has been particularly severe since the KCTU launched a campaign of "coordinated strikes" on 12 June.

Coordinated strikes are something of a tradition in Korea, where enterprise-based trade unions are grouped in sectoral federations. Company-level unions draw up separate bargaining agendas, and hold separate ballots on action in each company. But they also pursue broader common demands set by their national confederation, and the separate strikes are timed to coincide.

The KCTU believes that the authorities are out to destroy it, because it is the chief opponent of the "neoliberal" policies pursued by the government of President Kim Dae-jung.

"The main features of his economic policy have been 'foreign capital attraction', 'privatisation', and 'flexibilisation'," the KCTU points out. "These objectives are all designed to favour capital (investors, employers, business) rather than labour."

The June strikes were in support of "six points" aimed at countering these neoliberal trends. The "six points" were also a focus of today's action. They are:

  • An end to the neoliberal structural adjustment drive and retrenchments
  • A 12.7 percent wage increase and renewal of collective agreements
  • Employment status change for "irregular" workers to "regular" employees, legislative reform to eradicate discrimination against irregular workers, and consolidation of basic labour rights (trade union rights for government employees (civil servants, university professors, etc.)
  • Reductions in working time (5-day work week)
  • Expansion of the public medical system, expansion of the public education system, reform of the media and tax reform
  • Abolition of the National Security Law, achievement of national independence, opposition to President Bush's missile defence programme.

Taking a prominent part in the June campaign, and in today's protests, were company-based member unions of the Korean Chemical and Textile Workers' Federation (KCTF).

Particularly violent raids by the police - and by gangs of specially recruited armed thugs - were deployed against strikers at the Hyosung synthetic fibre plant in Ulsan.

On 5 June, more than 3,000 riot police stormed the plant. For a while, workers succeeded in holding the police at bay, so as to give others time to escape. Most of those who stayed behind - 242 in all - were arrested.

But the union's Deputy President Choi Min-seok and seven other activists shinned up a 40 metre high chimney at the plant. It took five days, two helicopters and an elite squad of police climbers to arrest them.

Once the strikers had been cleared from the site, riot police barred the entrance and strike-breakers were brought in to get production going again.

The violence of the attack brought protests from the 20-million-strong International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM), to which the KCTF is affiliated at the global level.

"The Hyosung dispute is essentially over management bad faith during negotiations on employment security," ICEM General Secretary Fred Higgs pointed out in a letter to Kim Dae-jung. "It is therefore an industrial relations issue, and there was no good reason why riot police and troops should have intervened in the Hyosung dispute at all - let alone in the very violent way that they did."

Higgs asked President Kim to "put a stop to such unwarranted police interventions in industrial disputes." He also urged him to "order the police to withdraw from the Hyosung plant" and to "bring your influence to bear on company managements so that they bargain in good faith with trade unions, notably in the case of Hyosung."

The KCTU has called for a "summit meeting" between Kim Dae-jung and KCTU President Dan Byung-ho. In the meantime, the KCTF and other industrial union federations are ready for more protests, leading up to a mass rally on 22 July.