South Korea does not immediately spring to mind as a hotbed of union activism, but it is currently in the grip of a huge conflict between the president of the country and the main trade union confederation.
Conservative leader Park Geun-Hye, who has been in power since 2013, has been attempting to pass through a raft of changes to the South Korean labour laws, a move which has caused outcry among the organised labour movement in the East Asian nation. The strike held on the 16th of December was the 3rd such action of the year, and brought in the region of 75,000 workers out, from 26 different unions, including those of the major car manufacturers Hyundai and Kia Motors.The proposed changes to union law are somewhat specific to Korea, but fall in line with the wider trend toward permanent precarity and insecure work situations within neoliberal countries. Traditionally, South Korean workers, particularly those at the huge, family-run conglomerates that dominate the economy of the country – such as the car manufacturers, and other industrial giants like Samsung –, could consider themselves as part of the furniture once in position at a firm, allowed to learn a trade and then progress up the ranks internally. Since the accession of Ms. Geun-Hye and her ruling New Frontier Party to power, they have sought to undermine the rights of workers through measures that would make it easier for companies to fire workers, and would extend the amount of time for which temporary workers can be employed without a permanent contract from two to four years. This would effectively allow the major companies – known colloquially as chaebol – to hire workers as temporary staff, employ them for four years, lay them off and then subsequently re-hire them for another four years, drastically reducing job security, decreasing the ability of Korean workers to fight for their rights and handing ever more power over to the bosses. The changes would also allow bosses to summarily change the fundamental day-to-day conditions of a worker’s life: how and when they are paid, the number of holiday days allowed per year. It would also phase in a scheme of cutting wages once an employee reaches 55 years of age.Unions were understandably angered by these proposed changes, and have been increasing the level of protest since they were announced. Strikes have been a major weapon used against the government, with three general strikes already this year, alongside major street demonstrations on a scale not seen in almost a decade. The militancy of the strikes, however, has been undermined by the leaders of the major trade union confederations.
Weak leadership with mainstream unions
The largest confederation, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, has refused to take part in the strikes, and although it initially also refused to enter talks with the government, later relented and is now discussing the proposed changes. It is widely known that the rank-and-file of the union, particularly those working in heavy industry and for the chaebol companies, oppose the actions of their confederation. The second largest trade union confederation, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) is resolutely behind the industrial action, and has been co-ordinating it, after their leader was elected by the membership on a platform of calling a general strike.
The strikes have also been accompanied by protests. Police attacked a demonstration of an estimated 100,000 workers in Seoul in November, injuring many, including a 69 year old farmer who was critically injured after being shot at close range by a water cannon. Union activists have faced persecution and arrest since the demonstration, which was declared illegal by the government. Han Sang-Goon, the leader of the KCTU, had an outstanding warrant for his arrest after demonstrations in May were also declared illegal, and later gave himself in after the Buddhist temple in which he was holed up for almost a month was surrounded by armed police. He faces up to ten years in prison. Union offices have also been raided.As the crackdown on trade union activity in South Korea continues, there is also a growing movement against proposed changes to the country’s history textbooks, which many union activists are linking in to the current strikes. President Geun-Hye is the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-Hee (who was assassinated in 1979) and has been attempting to replace the history textbooks used in schools with one, government-authored book, a move which has obvious parallels to the regime of her father. She has also been behind the jailing of opposition parliamentarians and the banning of an opposition party. The Teacher’s Union in South Korea, as has been reported on previously in DA, was outlawed in 2014, as was the union representing civil servants. The trade union confederations, on the back on the December 16th strikes and demonstrations, are now attempting to broaden the movement against the president, and continue to call for her to step down.