Multinational Monitor

MAR 1997
Vol. 18 No. 3


We'll Close! Plant Closings, Plant-Closing Threats, Union Organizing and NAFTA
by Kate Bronfenbrenner

Democracy on Trial: South Korean Workers Resist Labor Law Deform
by C. Jay Ou

A Referendum on Union Democracy: Teamsters Vote to Stay the Democratic Course
by Martha Gruelle

Nike Does It To Vietnam
by Jeff Ballinger

Conflict in the Strawberry Fields
by Cece Modupé Fadopé


The Bhopal Legacy
an interview with
Dr. Rosalie Bertell



Behind the Lines

Class War in the USA

The Front
Indian Labor Activist
Shot - Toxic Deception

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Their Masters' Voice

Names In the News


Democracy on Trial: South Korean Workers Resist Labor Law Deform

by C. Jay Ou

Seoul, South Korea -- Ushering in the new year with a bang, television screens worldwide delivered familiar images of demonstrators taking to the streets of South Korea's major cities and industrial zones. Workers and students were seen rallying and battling riot police, while government officials scrambled to mitigate damage to the national economy brought about by a series of nationwide strikes.

Fearless resistance went up against heavy-handed government tactics. Chung Jae Sung, a worker for the South Korean automobile manufacturer Hyundai Motors, engaged in the act of self-immolation to express outrage at the government.

At issue in this peninsular nation of some 35 million people are labor laws that threaten to further undermine labor standards and protections for workers, as well as a national security law that would return domestic intelligence capacities to the National Security Planning Agency (NSP), formerly the South Korean CIA. Hanging in the balance is South Korea's reputation as a newly democratic and developed nation -- most recently confirmed by its entry to the "rich nations' club," the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

General strike!

In a brazen, stealth maneuver, at 6 a.m. on December 26, President Kim Young Sam's ruling New Korea Party (NKP) passed 11 amendments to controversial laws dealing with labor and the NSP in six minutes -- without the participation of opposition legislators. The new laws would severely curtail workers' rights -- by enhancing employer power to fire workers, giving employers the right to fire strikers and maintaining a de facto ban on trade union political activity, among other provisions -- and return domestic investigation capacities to the NSP. The main opposition National Congress for New Politics (NCNP) and the second largest opposition United Liberal Democrats (ULD) declared the laws null and void and demanded a meeting with President Kim to protest the illegal procedure.

That morning, the leadership of the illegal Korea Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the second largest group of trade unions in South Korea with approximately 500,000 members and 930 member unions, called for immediate nationwide strikes to protest what they criticized as the "railroading of the labor and national security laws."

In the following weeks, KCTU and affiliated unions intensified the pressure on the government to nullify the laws through nationwide protests, strikes, rallies and various campaigns. The first phase of the general strikes from December 26 to January 3 included the participation of hundreds of unions and close to 400,000 unionists, mostly in the heavy industry sectors of automobile manufacturing and shipbuilding, and also including machinery, petrochemicals, hospitals and transportation. Hundreds of factories were forced to close and suspend production.

The KCTU called for immediate nullification of the laws, an apology from the president, and the resignation of President Kim's cabinet and all those involved in the passage of the bills, including Prime Minister Lee Soo Sung and ruling NKP chair Lee Hong Koo.

"President Kim YoungSam should apologize to 12 million workers," KCTU President Kwon Yong Gil thundered to a crowd of 25,000 workers from around the country on the fifth day of the strikes. "Unless the unilaterally railroaded labor laws and National Security Planning Agency Act are repealed, the second stage of the general strike will be launched right after the New Year's holiday."

The second phase commenced on January 3, when the 1.2 million-member Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) joined the KCTU-led strike coordinating organization, the National Council for the Preservation of Democracy and Revocation of Labor Laws (NCPD). The ongoing general strikes were joined by workers from white collar and public sectors, including clerical, insurance, university, communication and transit workers.

The government, which had already labeled the strikes illegal, quickly responded to the second phase with court summons for union leaders. On January 9, the government issued arrest warrants for seven KCTU leaders and 13 other union leaders. That day, it conducted a 3 a.m. raid on KCTU headquarters in Seoul. These actions prompted the FKTUto threaten to join the general strike in an alliance with the KCTU.

As the protests escalated, President Kim said that he had no plans to repeal the laws and that adoption of the law was an "inevitable choice."

The protests peaked on January 15, the first day of the third stage of the strike, when close to a million workers went on strike nationwide. Approximately 15,000 protesters in Seoul and over 400,000 nationwide were confronted by riot police during protests and rallies. Financial and public sector workers -- including from the bank, automotive, cargo and telecommunications sectors -- joined the ranks of the strikers.

To mitigate the effects of the nationwide walkout, some businesses simply replaced unionists with non-union workers. Many businesses used intimidation tactics, including threats of mass firings. The government announced that public sector union leaders would be arrested if the strikes inconvenienced the public. This threat cut short bus and taxi drivers' strikes.

Choi Byong Kuk, head of the Public Security Department at the Prosecutor General's Office, warned that the government would take "stern and resolute" measures unless union leaders stopped the illegal strikes.

Police arrested key union leaders in heavy industry on January 15, and arrested hundred of strikers in clashes around the country. Police continued to stand guard around the Myongdong Cathedral, the sanctuary of KCTUleaders threatened by arrest warrants.

On January 17, amidst violent street clashes, government and business threats of retribution and growing international pressure on the government to reform the laws, the unions moved the general strike to a fourth phase. The unions called for once-a-week strikes on Wednesdays and nationwide rallies on Saturdays.

One day before workers planned to begin the fourth phase, President Kim announced in a meeting with leaders of the three major political parties that he would lift the arrest warrants for labor leaders and order the government labor amendments sent back to the National Assembly for deliberation.

The KCTU was not satisfied, calling for all damage suits, mass firings, arrests and outstanding charges against 410 labor activists to be dropped or rescinded. However, the trade union leadership did suspend strike activities -- which had already cost the nation $3.15 billion, including $320 million in export earnings.

Modernization and managerial control

The economic pressure in international markets, especially during South Korea's current economic slowdown -- as reflected in a declining though still high growth rate (6.8 percent in 1996, compared to 9 percent in 1995) and current-account deficit ($22 billion) -- provided Korean government officials and business leaders' overarching rationale for pushing the labor law reforms. With South Korea's transition to democracy at the beginning of the decade finally freeing long-suppressed wage demands, wages have shot up an average of 15 percent annually in recent years. That is a trend Korean industrialists are eager to reverse. "Tough measures needed to be taken to compete with the international market," one influential business leader told Multinational Monitor.

At the same time, in anticipation of joining the OECD, the government sought to modernize South Korean labor rules to comport with industrialized country norms. The government hoped to overcome the "labor backwards country" image implied by international organizations such as the International Labor Organization in 1986 and most recently in June 1996 by the OECD and the International Congress of Free Trade Unions.

This modernization involved expanding workers' formal rights to unionize and lifting various restrictions on trade union organizations, but it also meant greater managerial control over the workforce. In May 1996, the government established the Presidential Commission on Industrial Relations Reform (PCIRR). Unions demanded the PCIRR review union proposals to permit third-party intervention in labor disputes (allowing workers to obtain legal and other outside support) and more than one union per workplace. Employers came to the table proposing stern measures to enhance their control over workers.

The PCIRR process quickly bogged down in fundamental disagreements between labor union representatives, business groups, and government representatives. The FKTU and KCTU demanded changes in labor law clauses which barred multiple unions and third-party involvement in labor disputes. The Korea Employers Federation (KEF), as representatives for the business sector, finally agreed to the demands in August but also called for changes in the Labor Standards Act for its members benefit: an alternating hours system which would avoid overtime pay, a labor dispatch system facilitating employer use of temporary labor, a revision of the dismissal system to permit downsizing, reduction of monthly and yearly holidays, abolition of menstrual leave and other workers benefits.

Such threats to labor rights spurred close cooperation between the FKTU and the KCTU, two groups with very different institutional histories and political orientations. As the official, government-controlled federation, the FKTU has traditionally taken a moderate, oftentimes reactionary approach. Since the 1970s, the FKTU had sabotaged and sometimes destroyed independent democracy and labor movement organizations. The KCTU, on the other hand, was established illegally in 1990 through the democracy and labor movement and has stood as the independent alternative to the FKTU.

The labor law reforms especially frightened the FKTU leaders because business demands would disproportionately affect the FKTU member unions, which are concentrated in small-to-medium-scale businesses.

The FKTU-KCTU alliance frayed after an October 7 PCIRR meeting, however. In the absence of KCTU representatives who had withdrawn from the Commission the previous week, FKTU accepted a measure to prohibit the use of the term "trade union" by non-registered trade unions -- a measure which would effectively codify KCTU's illegal status.

The relationship degenerated further when the FKTU in late October abandoned the labor consensus position that all reforms should be postponed due to fundamental business-labor disagreements. The FKTU leaders agreed that individually negotiated items concerning managerial control of employees should be presented to President Kim as final PCIRR legislative recommendations.

Even without a full package, Kim thanked the PCIRR and asked the Committee to provide a final report within two weeks. In response, KCTU President Kwon Young Kil initiated a hunger strike on November 1 to protest worsening of labor laws. On November 10, 200,000 people, including 100,000 KCTU members, joined together for a National Workers Rally for Labor Law Reform.

Also on November 10, the ruling NKP and government announced that it would prepare its own draft bill, raising tensions still higher.

This announcement angered even the FKTU, and helped revitalize the FKTU-KCTU alliance. An FKTU representative stated that the government's drive was a "vicious scheme to weaken labor unions and rights." Within the week, FKTU chairman Park In Sang vowed to strike and mount a campaign against all parties supporting the bill. The KCTU leadership set December 10 as its first strike date. Some 280 union leaders vowed to strike if the bill was introduced in the Assembly. For the first time since its establishment 36 years ago, the coalition of trade unions in banks and financial institutions decided to support a general strike.

In preparation for the general strike and to meet legal requirements, the FKTU, the KCTU and scores of labor unions filed hundreds of labor dispute occurrence reports with the Ministry of Labor Affairs prior to the initiation of strikes. The Labor Ministry refused to process the reports, claiming that "the government labor reform draft bill cannot be the subject of individual bargaining under current labor laws" and that the reports must contain "ordinary" labor bargaining issues involved in unionized workers' work conditions and welfare. It also warned labor groups that it would deal with illegal strikes in a stern manner.

Railroaded labor laws

Following on the heels of the National Assembly's ratification of South Korea's OECD membership on November 27, the government panel led by Prime Minister Lee Soo Sung released its draft labor law revision bills in a live televised broadcast on December 3. They closely resembled previous government proposals calling for deregulation of the labor market and restrictions of labor union rights.

The draft bills generated still louder cries for nationwide strikes and rallies. In a statement, the KCTU said that the "government had given up efforts for labor reform."

At the other end of the spectrum, the Federation of Korean Industries and the Korean Employers Federation opposed the bills for their inclusion of a clause allowing multiple unions at single workplaces -- albeit in 2002 after a "preparation period," a stipulation which incensed labor groups. A KEF statement said, "Multiple unions would lead to great confusion and aggravate industrial unrest."

Having arrived at a set of bills, the NKP worked in a frenzy to finalize and pass the labor law amendments before December 18, the end of the regular National Assembly session. On December 17, NKP Chairman Lee announced his plan to railroad labor and national security law reforms if necessary.

On December 26, in a special plenary session, the NKP did just that. At a secret 6 a.m. session, the National Assembly passed amendments to six laws. The two gains for labor were amendments lifting the ban on third-party mediators and permitting more than one union per workplace -- but these changes were to be delayed until 2000 and 2002. In contrast, an array of anti-union amendments would take effect immediately. Those amendments would:

  • Maintain a ban on teachers and public sector (including bank, telecommunication and hospital) worker unions;
  • Allow business to use non-striking workers from the same business concern as striker replacements;
  • Ban wage payments to union officers;
  • Maintain a de facto ban on trade union political activities, even though the formal prohibition would be lifted;
  • Lift the ban on hiring and subcontracting labor during labor disputes;
  • Ban wage payments to striking workers;
  • Give employers unlimited rights to dismiss striking workers and greater power to employers to dismiss any worker;
  • Give employers greater power to force employees to work unpaid overtime; and
  • Grant the National Security Planning Agency domestic intelligence powers such as political inspections, clandestine operations and NSPparticipation in ministerial meetings.

The democratic movement faces the future

Although the period of the strikes revealed widespread support for workers from many spheres of society, it also made clear that citizens are extremely anxious about the future of Korea's economic and political development, so much so that support for workers waned in the final weeks of the strikes. In an interview with the South Korean monthly Mal, KCTU chair Kwon Young Kil expressed his disappointment in Korean citizens who failed to see that the health of the economy is bound up with workers' standard of living. "Only spirited and energized workers can sustain and bring to life the economy. By suppressing labor unions in the name of saving the economy, the worker dies and eventually the economy will shake. As the prioritizing of people and economy are balanced in earnest, a new social order will be secured."

South Korea certainly faces enormous difficulties as it seeks to secure a new social order. Chief among them are: How will South Korea make the shift from an export-oriented economy driven by cheap labor to one that competes internationally with high quality products? How can South Korea's political and economic structure be reformed to curtail the power and influence over the democratic process of the giant conglomerates, the chaebols?

It does not appear that the opposition parties are prepared to answer these questions. Their inability or unwillingness to provide an adequate support base for trade unions during the strikes was notable.

Yet there is hope. The vibrancy of South Korean civil society -- including non-governmental organizations such as the Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice, People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and the Korean Labor and Society Institute, groups active in the labor reform process and a whole host of issues concerning democratization in South Korea -- demonstrates the untapped potential of South Korea's forces for democratic change. It remains to be seen how or whether civic organizations can form lasting political institutions to facilitate the ongoing democratic transition in South Korea.

South Korean democracy will soon be subjected to another test. At press time, the KCTU had threatened to resume work stoppages if the government failed to repeal the bills. On February 11, the opposition National Congress for New Politics called for a discussion of the amendments in the Assembly's environment and labor committee in order to prevent another round of nationwide strikes. This proposal generated little interest, however, since the parties were tied up in debates over a political bribery scandal involving Hanbo Steel, yet another clear illustration of the systemic collusion of business and government in South Korea.

C. Jay Ou is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.


Mailing List


Editor's Blog

Archived Issues

Donate Online


Send Letter to the Editor

Writers' Guidelines