BY IGGY KIM
SEOUL — South Korea's movement for democratic unions won an important victory on May 21, when the candidate of a rank-and-file alliance, Kim Jae-gil, won the powerful post of secretary of the Korean Railway Union in a landslide.
The election was the first direct vote for the post in 54 years, and followed a Supreme Court ruling that the previous voting system was unconstitutional.
Kim's group, the Democratic Railway Workers' Struggle Committee, has been waging a determined campaign for a democratic and fighting union. The KRU is the central union in the pro-government, pro-bosses Federation of Korean Trade Unions; the democratic union movement is organised in the rival Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.
Threatened by the looming privatisation of Korean Rail, the changed voting system prompted enormous member interest in this election and allowed the expression of a growing mood for struggle and democracy. A whopping 97% of the nearly 25,000 union members participated.
Exceeding all prior expectations, Kim Jae-gil received over 65% of the votes, including more than half the votes in districts the Struggle Committee believed to be their weakest. Even in the outgoing secretary's own district, Kim Jae-gil obtained 70%; in his opponent's district, he still got a strong 40% vote.
The poll was not free of dispute. Prior to the vote the union's electoral commission refused to allow observers and scrutineers, prompting rank-and-file members to occupy the union's national office and stage a protest in front of it on May 17.
Following the final count on May 21, the former secretary, Kim Gi-young, refused to vacate his position, claiming his term lasted until the delegates' conference on May 30. This triggered a protest of 50 members in front of the union office on May 24.
Kim Gi-young did not turn up to work that day. Instead, Kim Jae-gil took up his first day of duties as the new secretary.
Even then, the handover was marred by sabotage from the outgoing executive, who deleted computer files, discarded records, manipulated the computer systems and fiddled with the finances.
The first major concern for the new leadership was the May 30 delegates' conference. Despite the huge support for Kim Jae-gil, the democratic faction narrowly failed to win a majority of the 154 delegates' positions.
However, as the conference approached, opposition delegates in the ones and twos came out in support of the Kim Jae-gil executive. By the time the meeting opened, a majority was in favour of the new leadership's initiatives.
Delegates overwhelmingly backed a proposal to change the union constitution, introduce a general assembly of the membership and reduce union dues, a longstanding grievance of the rank and file.
The conference also approved a measure to provide financial assistance for, and secure the reinstatement of, rank-and-file militants fired in the course of struggles.
The financial report was deferred to an interim delegates' conference, as the new leadership must first work through the financial discrepancies inherited from the previous executive.
Given the overwhelming membership support, even the FKTU had to send a congratulations message to the new leader, but the question remains of how smoothly the union can formalise its shift into the KCTU camp.
According to union rules, a two-thirds majority vote of the membership is required to change affiliations. But more than that, the new leadership has a mountain of problems and issues to sort through.
The first major task on its horizon is organising the struggle against privatisation and associated mass layoffs. As one observer from the socialist organisation the Power of the Working Class put it, the transition to a democratic union is like the overwhelming task of decolonisation that faced Korea in 1945.
The original taming of the KRU occurred during the US-sponsored counter-revolution in the late 1940s. The KRU was the core of the revolutionary unions during the 1930s and the August 1945 revolution. In September 1946, it organised a rail strike against the US occupation of southern Korea, which quickly spread into a general strike.
After violently suppressing the strike, the US military government and its protege, Syngman Rhee, smashed up the revolutionary National Council of Unions and the KRU.
In its place, Rhee assembled a cohort of gangsters to organise the regime-friendly Korean Labor Federation for the Promotion of Independence, which became the FKTU in 1961. The tamed and cowed KRU became its most important union.