Standing up for the right to organise--two of the tens of thousands of workers who joined the KCTU protest on December 28 in Seoul. Flickr / Mac Urata. All rights reserved.
The mainstream media struggle to understand Korea. Throughout December, global news coverage focussed on the latest purge in North Korea, a former basketball star’s visit to the Communist state, and rising tensions between both Koreas and Japan, following the visit of the Japanese prime minister to a controversial war memorial. But CNN, the BBC, Sky News, Al Jazeera and others had absolutely nothing to say about a strike in South Korea that has shaken the society profoundly—culminating in mass actions involving hundreds of thousands of people on the last weekend of 2013.
The railway workers’ strike, which began early in the month, took place in a society where workers’ rights are routinely violated. Of course South Korea is infinitely freer and richer than North Korea and a far better place to live: in North Korea, workers have no rights at all and many thousands live as slaves in the country’s extensive Gulag of labour camps. South Korea, on the other hand, has free elections, a free press, freedom of religion, the right to demonstrate. And one would expect it to allow workers to join and create free and independent trade unions, as is the case in most democracies.
Like every other country in the world, South Korea is obliged under international law to respect the eight ‘core conventions’ of the International Labour Organisation. These guarantee the right of all workers to join and form trade unions, to bargain collectively with their employers and so on. But the South Korea government is regularly accused of violating these rights.
Things have improved in recent years: the left-wing Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) was finally legalised in 1999. The Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU)—an older, more conservative, trade-union federation—had been legal for some time. But industrial relations in South Korea continue to be characterised by trade-union militancy on the one side and anti-union repression on the other. Imprisonment of trade-union leaders is common.
Just a few weeks ago, the government threatened to deregister the Korean Teachers’ Union, triggering international protests. So when the railway workers took the decision to call a strike, they were acutely aware of the fragility of the country’s industrial-relations system. They were prepared for a tough fight.
The railway workers were angry that a new bullet-train line to be built would be in private hands—a first step towards privatisation of Korail, the national rail network. They expected that privatisation would also lead to mass layoffs. They knew that, if they were to go in strike, they would likely face disciplinary measures, including sackings and even the jailing of union leaders, as has happened in the past.
Expecting the worst, they called on the international labour movement to launch a major global campaign to defend them—even before the strike was launched. The London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation came to their aid and an online campaign was launched on LabourStart, the labour movement’s campaigning website. After just three weeks, nearly 15,000 trade unionists—90 per cent from outside Korea—had signed the call on the South Korean government to respect their right to strike.
But when the strike began in early December, the government reaction was swift and fierce. Arrest warrants for the union leaders were issued. The country’s president, the daughter of a former dictator, branded the strike ‘illegal’. Almost 8,000 striking railway workers were disciplined. The company also brought legal action against the union, demanding over $7 million in damages.
As the strike dragged on—soon becoming the longest rail strike in Korean history—the repression intensified. On December 17, police raided the headquarters of the Korean Railway Workers’ Union (KRWU) in search of top leaders to arrest—but found none. Instead they confiscated office equipment. including disk drives and confidential documents. Two days later, they carried out similar raids on union offices in four other cities.
Frustrated by their inability to locate the union leaders, police then besieged the headquarters of the KCTU, where they believed the railway workers’ leaders had sought protection. Trade unionists formed a defensive cordon but eventually riot police charged the building, smashing down glass doors and firing pepper gas, causing several injuries. There were reports that some of the trade unionists responded with improvised water cannon.
General strike call
In the end, the police found no KRWU leaders in the building but managed to arrest around 130 workers who had stood in their way. But the attack, designed to break the strike and weaken the union, had the exact opposite effect. An enraged KCTU leadership issued a call for a million-worker strong general strike on December 28. Meanwhile, the more conservative FKTU broke off its regular talks with the government in protest.
In spite of the western media blackout, word was getting out. Amnesty International issued a very strongly worded protest, following the attack on the KCTU headquarters. ‘This police raid violated international human rights and labour standards in many ways—from arresting trade union leaders in retaliation for strike action to the police using unnecessary and excessive force that resulted in workers being injured,’ said Polly Truscott, AI deputy Asia-Pacific programme director. Meanwhile, trade unionists in other countries, including Turkey, Hong Kong and Bangladesh, began organising protests at South Korean embassies.
In Seoul, it finally emerged where the KRWU leaders were hiding—in the Jogye Buddhist temple. The temple was then encircled by riot police, reluctant however to break in. At this point, Choi Yeon-hye, the president of Korail, finally agreed to face-to-face talks with the union leaders inside the temple, mediated by the monks. This led to a photo-opportunity and several hours of talks in Korail’s headquarters but they proved fruitless.
When the talks collapsed, the government demanded that the workers return to work by midnight, or face the consequences, while insisting it would go ahead with the privatisation—which the union called a ‘declaration of war’ on the Korean people.
On Saturday, December 28, giant demonstrations took place in Seoul, demanding an end to repression and respect for workers’ rights. The main effect of the government’s repressive policies was to energise the South Korean labour movement, which rallied to the defence of the railway workers.
On December 30 an agreement bringing the strike to an end was reported between the ruling New Frontier Party and the opposition Democratic Party, which had supported the strikers, following talks with one of the union leaders sought by the police. The parties agreed to form a parliamentary committee to address the concerns that had led to the strike and to discuss the long-term future of the industry.