Korean Workers Shut Down the Chaebols

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

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

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.