Fwd: (GLW) SOUTH KOREA: General strike in name only

Alan Bradley alanb at SPAMelf.brisnet.org.au
Sun Jun 18 20:37:20 MDT 2000

The following article appeared in the latest issue of Green Left Weekly

SOUTH KOREA: General strike in name only

SEOUL -- The May 31 to June 4 general strike by South Korean workers has
deepened differences between the reformist Democratic Labour Party (DLP)
and militants seeking to build a counter-offensive against President Kim
Dae Jung's neo-liberal attacks. The Power of the Working Class (PWC), which
has begun to regroup the latter into a fighting political opposition to the
DLP, points to several fundamental problems encountered in the strike.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), which called the strike,
formally raised three demands: reduction of the working week from 44 hours
(5.5 days) to 40 (five days); an end to restructuring (including the
restoration of collective bargaining and pre-International Monetary Fund
restructuring wage levels); and the upgrading of casuals to permanent
status. Of these, the DLP-aligned leadership focused on only the first
demand, which they considered the easiest to obtain concessions on.

Even before the strike, Kim had promised to consider a five-day week. But
this is because a five-day week would coincide with the wishes of the large
employers, who see it as part of their overall restructuring plans.
However, Kim has not given any guarantees -- even rhetorical ones --
against trade-offs, such as cuts to wages and holidays. The bosses are
assuming, of course, that a reduction of hours will be accompanied by a
reduction of pay.

The KCTU is at present insisting on no trade-offs, (it would be suicide to
do otherwise), but it remains to be seen how this crucial difference will
be played out. There is speculation that the leadership will accept a pay
cut but maintain a fighting posture by demanding what the government has
already offered: a fund for the labour movement created from the amount of
wages traded off. This fund looks likely to be controlled by a tripartite
commission of government, big business and labour federations.

No leadership

According to the PWC, there is a deeper issue here. While the DLP focused
on the question of shorter working hours, the more vital questions for
rank-and-file workers were encapsulated in the other two demands. It has
been the deep-seated anger against economic restructuring and increasing
casualisation that has fuelled the latest round of workplace negotiations.

Instead of concentrating and directing workers' anger and energy into
struggling for all three demands, the KCTU apparatus focused on meetings
with government and business. It did little to organise the general strike,
thereby neglecting its unique positioning to coordinate the whole of the
independent labour movement.

Individual unions were left on their own to use the annual negotiations to
fight, workplace by workplace, for the last two demands. (Even then, the
workers won the third demand -- the upgrading of casual workers to
permanent -- in several areas, most notably the hospitals.)

Those individual unions that turned to strike action simply agreed to act
at a particular point during the general strike period. Hence the daily
number of strikers did not exceed 70,000 during the five-day strike period;
the total KCTU membership is about 500,000. And even the 70,000 figure is
deceptive: it includes those who struck for just part of a day and those
who merely attended stop-work meetings.

Without effective KCTU leadership, individual strikes merely coincided with
the dates of the “general” strike. As much as many militants in individual
unions would have liked to organise and lead a fighting general strike,
they were not in a practical position to do so. Only the KCTU would have
been able to do this.

Even at the level of appearances, the general strike proved limp. The
five-day action was to culminate in a rally and march on Sunday, June 4,
with the turnout conservatively forecast at 50,000. In fact, only 15,000

Moreover, it was a generally submissive affair, with KCTU officials
attempting to suppress spontaneous worker resistance to provocative police
actions. The police blocked the participation of a fleet of taxi drivers in
the march and allowed general traffic into a lane of the route during the

Street fights against the police are basic features of a movement that,
over many years, has had to physically win and defend the right to mass
street action. So, despite the KCTU officials, the workers stopped the
police from barring the taxi drivers' participation on June 4.


Most tellingly, there was almost no participation by the traditional front
line of the independent labour movement: workers from the automobile
plants, shipbuilding yards, subways and Korean Telecom. The metalworkers
pushed into the front line this time were from small and middle workshops,
by no means the gigantic fist of workers from the huge conglomerates who
have spearheaded real general strikes in the past.

Predictably, the Kim government has directed its sweetest charm toward the
leaderships of the most militant sections of the Korean working class. The
struggle to elevate the consciousness of the movement from a trade union
level to a political one has, at least for now, been deviated by cooption
by the capitalist state.

At its basest, this was demonstrated by the KCTU's pre-strike demand of 18
billion won (about US$16 million) in government funding, on the grounds
that as a legal organisation it deserves government assistance. Kim did not
reject this demand out of hand; he made his answer contingent on how the
strike panned out.

The main problem with the general strike, then, was not so much the KCTU's
almost exclusive focus on the shorter hours demand, but that this central
organisation of workers did not build a real general strike. After all, the
battles against casualisation and IMF austerity can be hinged around the
demand for shorter hours with no trade-offs. But, because the general
strike was not genuine, even the demand for shorter hours may now be sunk
by an unprincipled compromise.


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