Metalworkers spearhead KCTU campaign

May 5, 1999

By Jonathan Singer

In the second week of the campaign by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) against mass retrenchments and pay cuts, members of the Korean Metal Workers Federation (KMWF) have played the key role in industrial action. This follows the return to work on April 26 of 8800 striking Seoul subway workers after their strike "began to over-stretch the organisational resources" of the KCTU, according to its own April 27 report.

Confronting an austerity program driven by the International Monetary Fund, the KCTU is demanding a suspension of layoffs and pay cuts, a "reduction of working hours to share work and avoid depriving people of work" and improvements to social security to guarantee the livelihood of the unemployed. The demands are being fiercely resisted by the government of President Kim Dae-jung, which is refusing to negotiate with the KCTU.

The government has mobilised the police and courts against the strikers. The subway workers have been a particular target. Arrest warrants have been issued for 66 of their leaders and 259 have been sued in relation to losses claimed to be 6.1 billion won.

About 8000 riot police and two police helicopters harassed 4000-5000 subway workers camped at Seoul National University (the university is claiming 23.5 million won in damages from the union). Subway management also phoned the striking workers' families, saying the workers risked dismissal with loss of their retirement benefits.

Originally, the subway workers were to strike indefinitely as the KCTU escalated its actions up to a general strike of all of its 550,000 members on May 1. Although 70% of members were still out after eight days — compared with only 20% after six days the last time they struck — the strength of the strike was partly based on workers expecting other unions to take earlier action. A drift back to work was inevitable because of the pressures on individual workers.

The KCTU leaders said that "an unfortunate conclusion of the strike [would] jeopardise the success of the KCTU-wide general campaign" and called off the strike.

The KCTU is trying to rebuild the confidence of workers and their unions after the impact of the "Asian economic crisis" in Korea. The difficulties involved were again revealed in the vote of the 42,000-strong Korea Telecom union to postpone its April 26 strike because the leadership felt the members were not "prepared to weather the pressure of a strike".

Some media reports claim the KCTU is in crisis, but it does not appear to have lost direction. KCTU president Lee Kap-yong says "an all-out struggle against the government" will continue and he has refused to take part in the commission on "restructuring" with government and business representatives.

Daewoo shipbuilding workers led the KMWF members with an indefinite strike. Workers in universities, hospitals and the hospitality and insurance industries, and 30,0000 other members of the Korean Federation of Transport, Public and Social Services Labour Unions (which includes the subway and Telecom unions) have also stopped work. The strikes are building toward a massive May Day rally in Seoul.

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