South Korea: Class war in midst of economic crisis

August 8, 2009

The class war in South Korea reached a new stage with the struggle of the Ssangyong autoworkers. The workers strike against layoffs began in May, and they occupied their plant in Pyongtaek, 50 kilometres south of Seoul.

There was a fullscale war on strikers. On August 6, the 77th day since the start of the strike, and the 19th day since the riot police began their full scale attacks, the union and management finally reached an agreement.

The union accepted part of management's redundancy proposal, saving about half the jobs of the strikers.

The rest will apply for voluntary retirement, unpaid long-term leave, or accept another job from the spin-off company.

Union leader Han Sang-gyun apologised for not being able to block the whole redundancy plan. He said the scars of this struggle would not disappear easily.

On the day of the agreement, many strikers, including union leaders, were arrested by police. More than 100 workers are expected to be put on trial.

On the previous morning, thousands of riot police, as well as pro-company workers and hired thugs, launched a wholesale attack on the striking workers. Three police helicopters dropped teargas balloons. Riot police squads encircled the plant and attacked workers with water cannons.

Management and hired goons blocked the supply of water and gas for weeks. At the start of August, electricity was cut off. Strikers suffered from hunger, thirst and the lack of power supply.


The global financial crisis hit the South Korean economy hard and the immediate victims have been workers. Across the country, a wave of redundancies swept the factories.

In response, workers began resisting for their jobs and livelihoods.

In Pyongtaek, 50 kilometers to the south of Seoul, Ssangyong Motors went bankrupt again, after previous bankruptcies in 1998 and 2004. Daewoo Motors took the company over and it was taken over again in 2004 by Shanghai Motors.

In January, after years of mismanagement, the company went bankrupt again.

Workers were angry with the management. The Shanghai management never kept its promise of large investment, instead transferring advanced technology to China. Workers were also upset that the government knew about the situation and did nothing.

Management's solution was more restructuring and massive redundancies. The management proposed the redundancy of 2656 workers out of the 7500-strong workforce.

Union militancy

Ssangyong workers' union rejected the management's proposal.

A new, militant leadership had been elected in December last year. Historically, the Ssangyong Motors union branch was one of the weakest compared with other militant unions in the auto industry, such as at Hyundai or Kia.
The Ssangyong workers' union was dominated by corrupt pro-management leaderships that preferred dialogue to strikes and struggle.

However, as the crisis approached, the rank-and-file united to save their jobs. Considering the big the impact of the crisis, workers felt the need for the strong leadership that could fight a hostile management and government.

This was an important turning point in the workers' struggle.

In early April, the union rejected management's plan to dismiss 2646 workers, beginning the lengthy struggle.

On May 8, the company reported its plan to the local labour ministry office. In protest, the union launched a strike. In this period, the union went on partial strikes on several occasions.

In the meantime, management proposed a voluntary retirement program to divide workers. Under intense pressure, as many as 1700 workers out of 5000 production line workers applied for early retirement. Among them were pro-management foremen and pro-company union delegates.

However, management insisted on forcibly dismissing the remaining 960 workers needed to meet its redundancy target.

On May 9, three union leaders began an indefinite strike on the top of a high-rise chimney in the middle of the plant. On May 21, the union declared an indefinite all-plant strike. Thousands of unionists joined the strike and occupied the whole plant in Pyongtaek.

The managers were blocked from the plant. Support for the workers came from political groups, other unions, social movements and community groups — with many staying in the plant with workers in solidarity until a police blockade began on June 26.

On May 13, the wives of striking workers began to organise themselves in support of the strike. Many of families were hit hard by the bankruptcy and less than half the monthly wage was earned due to strikes.

Some of the workers' wives decided to join the struggle. They distributed leaflets and joined union rallies as an organised group. The Family Support Committee was established and these women played a key role in spreading the strikers' message to the public.

Role of the unions

Most national trade union leaders visited the plant and expressed support for the occupation. The national metal workers union mobilised unionists in Seoul in protests against government policies against the workers.

However, the labour movement has been quite demobilised and fragmented in recent years. Thus, while the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) interim leadership emphasised solidarity with Ssangyong workers in words, the KCTU's capacity to lead a nation-wide struggle is greatly weakened.

The striking workers had very low expectations of the KCTU's organisational support, such as the possibilities for an industry-wide solidarity strike, not to mention a nationwide general strike.

The Ssangyong workers organised as an army. In the face of police and hired thug attacks, striking workers organised defense squads.

Workers trained in morning and afternoon sessions in rotation. At the same time, workers organised meetings to share information on the situation and the negotiations.

In daily evening rallies, labour singers, dancers, and entertainers performed for the workers in solidarity.

War begins

As the occupation continued, management began to implement a plan to take back the plant by force. They hired thugs and used threats to mobilise workers not facing redundancies.

First, they encircled the plant and blocked the entrance with the help of thousands of riot police. Thus, from early July, the occupation was isolated.

On July 22, riot police and management thugs invaded the plants in face of strikers' resistance. The management took back some buildings, including the office headquarters. The plant was divided into company-held blocks and worker-occupied blocks.

In late July, battles continued day by day, inside and outside the plant. The workers were armed with steel pipes, firebombs, and sling shots, but they were overwhelmed by the enormous physical force of the police and company thugs.

Every day, police helicopters poured teargas liquids on the workers on the roof of the plant. Company goons indiscriminately fired slingshots with large bolts at the strikers.

With no gas or water, the workers survived by eating rice balls. Workers remained disciplined and well-organised for daily combat.

As the attacks increased, the KCTU mobilised support, and political groups and social movements rallied in front of the plant. They tried to deliver water and medicines, but management blocked all help while police stood by.

On July 25 and 29, the KCTU held national workers' rallies in support of the Ssanyong workers. But solidarity marches to Ssangyong Motors plant were blocked by riot police. In the ensuing confrontation, police injured and arrested scores of workers.

The Family Support Committee and other groups kept up attempts to deliver water and medicines, and held rallies, press conferences and candle vigils. Hundreds of workers and activists spent their holidays at sit-camps outside the plant.

But on August 5, company thugs violently cleared the sit-in tents.

In face of growing pressure from the community and public opinion, management began dialogue on July 30 and 31. However, management had just a single option in mind: the union's unconditional surrender and acceptance of the redundancies.

The union refused and the dialogue broke down.

The company responded by cutting off cut the plant's power supply. On August 3, the company began its final offensive with the help of riot police.

On August 3 and 4, the attack strengthened. On August 5 a massive attack took place. In the course of the attack, three workers fell from the roof and were seriously injured. A dozen workers were arrested.

The riot police used extreme violence, including Taser guns and rubber bullets

The remaining strikers were isolated in one building, but continued the struggle in the face of great hardship.

On August 6, a negotiated settlement finally ended the 77-day long struggle.

For more than two months, workers occupied the whole plant, fighting the combined strength of the police, management, and hired goons. The broad solidarity from families, other workers, social movement activists and religious communities showed the legitimacy of their struggle.

Although the final settlement included significant concessions, the Ssangyong workers won an important battle. The management had refused to recognise the workers as humans with rights, but the Ssangyong workers showed the truth through their heroic struggle.

The Ssangyong workers did their best during the 77-day occupation. Though a full-scale victory was not won, these heroic working class warriors deserve the solidarity and homage of workers across the globe.

[Young-su Won is a member of the Preparation Group for a Socialist Workers' Party in South Korea.]

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