The Korean working class has come of age. This mighty movement offers us both lessons and inspiration and must fill the bourgeois with fear and trepidation of what is yet to come. The economic miracle of the so-called tiger economies has been brought to and end, the strike has shown that rather than being a savior for world capitalism, economic development has led to an inmense strengthening of the working class.
A few minutes before six in the morning of 26 December, four bus loads of people arrived at the front door of the South Korean National Assembly building in Seoul. As soon as the buses stopped, men in suits, wearing the golden badges indicating their membership of the Assembly, rushed into the building.
By seven minutes past six, 11 bills of legislation had been passed 'reforming' Korea's labour laws. Each bill was read out and some 154 men from the ruling New Korea Party stood to indicate their support. After a little less than ten minutes the besuited men dashed back into the buses and drove off at speed into the cold, dark morning.This was how the 'historic' labour law reform of President Kim Young Sam's government was concluded.
The response of Korean workers was immediate. By 10 o'clock that day the 17,000 KCTU (Korean Confederation of Trade Unions) members at Kia Motors in Sohwa-li, one hour from downtown Seoul, held a mass meeting in the company ground, and decided to march to Seoul's Myongdong Cathedral where the KCTU leadership was in the process of setting up it's strike HQ.
At 10.30, the unions at Hyosung Heavy industry, Daeheung machinery, Tong-il Heavy Industry and Korea Fukoku, affiliated to the Korean Federation of Metalworkers came out on strike. They were followed by the Korean Hospital Workers Union, the Korean Federation of Professional and Technical Union and the Korean Council of Chemical Workers Union.
By 1pm more workers in the major heavy industries joined the strike: at Hyundai Motors, Hyundai Heavy Industry, Daewoo Heavy Industry, Sssangyong Motors, Asia Motors and other sectors.
By 10pm that evening 146,233 workers organised in 95 unions were on strike. Furthermore, another 63 unions had already decided to join the strike the next day.
On the second day of the general strike 206,220 workers in 163 unions were out. Workers at Daewoo Motors joined in, bringing the last of Korea's 6 major auto manufacturers to a halt. The Korean Federation of Truck Drivers Unions, inspired by the French truckers, brought the main expressway in Seoul to a halt with a 200 truck 'parade.' The culmination of the day were the mass rallies involving over 120,000 workers across the country, including a demo of 35,000 strikers in Seoul's Yoido Plaza.
By day three of the general strike 221,720 workers were out, including 8,000 workers on the Seoul subway and workers at Kumho Tyre. A 2000 car parade halted the main expressway once again. After a mass meeting of 20,000 strikers in downtown Seoul, riot police fired a barrage of tear gas into the assembly. But the strikers were able to regroup and continue with the assembly.
Now the general strike rolled forward towards the new year, more workers joining every day. On new years eve thousands of strikers converged on the Boshin-gak bell, the bell that traditionally sounds the beginning of the next year. Police attacked once again with tear gas, but workers were able to regroup and as the bell rang, workers unfurled banners calling for the repeal of the the new anti-worker labour laws.
The KCTU announced that the second wave of the general strike would begin after the new year holidays on January 3rd, and as workers returned form their break the strike continued. By the sixth of January 190,893 workers in 150 unions were out. The 'second phase' of the strike was successfully launched.
The opposition party members in the national Assembly had been "caught with their pants down." They thought they had an agreement about parliamentary procedures with the ruling party. But when the labour laws were going through the Assembly they were still in their beds.
The new laws allow companies to lay off workers for "business reasons" thus ending Korea's system of jobs for life - a devastating attack on workers rights given that although Korea ranks 11th in the worlds economies, it only ranks 122nd in relation to welfare provision. Companies will also be freed to introduce flexible working hours and to 'substitute' labour during strikes. There are also new curbs on unions and new powers for the the government intelligence organisation, the Agency for National Security Planning, which will now be free to conduct domestic surveillance. Another central plank of the 'reform' is the outlawing of 'multiple unionism,' a direct attack on the KCTU.
South Korea, the biggest cat of the Tiger economies, is not turning out as the bourgeois commentators expected. The Tigers, in the new global economy, were supposed to be a salvation for capitalism. However, things look very different, as workers battle with riot police through the pall of tear gas.
The Korean economic 'miracle' is clearly running out of steam. That is why Kim Young Sam brought forward his 'reform' programme. Growth rates are slowing down, the stockmarket has dropped to a four year low, and the current account deficit has risen to $23 billion.
This means some dramatic changes in the real economy. In the city of Pusan, the biggest shoe factory in the world employing 20,000 workers has closed - the jobs have been moved to cheaper climes in Indonesia, the Philippines, China and Vietnam. 'Globalisation' works both ways, if companies can move into countries offering cheap labour, then they can also move out. And wages in Korea have risen by over 140% over the last ten years.
From an impoverished backyard of US imperialism in the wake of the Korean War in the early fifties, Korea is now the worlds 11th largest economy with a per capita income of $10,000. The 'miracle' though is not that hard to understand. Massive US aid and strict government direction of the economy in the first case, protectionism, a heavily nationalised financial sector - hardly the model of a free market economy the Tigers are supposed to represent. And of course their labour market has always been heavily slanted in favour of big business.
"Brutally long hours, high rates of savings and investment and hierarchial, authoritarian systems that rewarded those who succeeded and punished those who did not cooperate." (Troubled Tiger: a study of South Korea's economic ascent). The first act of the Park military regime in 1961 was to arrest some of the countries leading businessmen for 'profiteering.' They were only released when they had agreed to up investment in those industries the government was prioritising. One other interesting thing about the Park regime which really instigated the economic 'miracle' was its reliance on such un-free market policies as five year plans and so on. This was capitalist planning, or at least planning to bring capitalism into being, and it was the workers and peasants who were going to foot the bill.
As fast as it was exporting consumer goods, it was importing capital goods to make them and borrowing from the advanced countries to pay for them. Technologically it has been reliant on the West and Japan. Daewoo may be selling its cars throughout the global market, but they have been totally reliant on designs and engineering from General Motors, Kia and Hyundai similarly with Japanese manufacturers.
When cheap labour and foreign capital begins to run out, then economic trouble will follow. That is what is happening in Korea. It is no longer a low wage alternative for the West or Japan. Now a major economy in it's own right, one third of all the worlds ships built are built there, it is the worlds sixth largest car producer.
It is more industrialised and wealthier than many EU countries. This is why the general strike is one of historic importance. There can be no escape for capitalism, neither in 'globalisation,' or the rapid development of low waged economies. Yes, the growth rates in South East asia have been dramatic, but we now see its greatest product: a young, vibrant and militant working class. For any bourgeois commentator who put their faith in such miracles, either in Korea, Taiwan, China or Brazil, the striking car workers and ship yard workers have dealt a shattering blow. The 'miracle' is clearly at an end.
A Presidential Commission on Industrial Relations Reform (PCIR) failed to get agreement on labour reform. President Kim Young Sam's ruling New Korea Party then moved to impose 'reform.' A massive demonstration of 100,000 took place Yoido Plaza on November 10th. Strike ballots were organised, a four hour general strike was called for December 13.
Then, on December 26, the ruling party met in a secret session of the National Assembly, without even the formality of inviting the opposition, to rubber stamp the new legislation. The general strike got underway.
The KCTU, technically illegal, was formed in 1995, having evolved out of the workers struggles of 1987, and organises nearly half a million workers, mainly in the big manufacturing sector, the Seoul subway, in the media, hospitals and in Korea Telecom. The other union federation, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), established and partially financed through the state, organises 1.2 million workers, mainly amongst the miners, railway workers, printers, postal workers, banks and the state sector. Although both organisations have been involved in the struggle against the 'reforms' it has been the KCTU and workers in the big car plants, engineering and shipyards that have spearheaded the strike.
The new legislation banning 'multiple unionism' is clearly an attempt to try and curb the KCTU and prop up the Federation.
The KCTU has also targeted a campaign against the chaebols, Korea's huge industrial conglomerates. The Federation of Korean Industries, the chaebols umbrella organisation, is calling for a "five year wage freeze" as one 'answer' to Korea's growing economic problems. The KCTU sees the chaebols as central to the problems of the Korean working class. "The chaebols... quest for absolute control of the economy, were responsible for strangling the economy and the well being of the working people. The chaebols were the primary culprit, through their unrepenting graft and corruption, speculative profiteering through property speculation, deepening of dependency in technology and essential parts, and snowballing of luxury imports, for the current economic woes."
The general strike continued into 1997. As we go to press the situation is unclear. The FKTU has announced a 48 hour strike starting on Tuesday 14th January. Clearly the government wants to move to end the KCTU strike before this date. Warrants have been issued for the arrest of eight KCTU leaders who have been based in the grounds of the Myonggong cathedral. The first attempt to serve the warrants was repelled by 4,000 car workers armed with metal bars and clubs.
The KCTU has given an ultimatum that if the warrants are served, and if the legislation is not withdrawn by midnight on the 14th they will call out all their members in a generalised offensive.
The state could also move to occupy the car plants and shipyards with riot police. The strikes have been sitdown strikes with workers actually staying in the plants, going home only at the weekend. Attempts to send in riot police could lead to a major escalation.
What the government doesn't want is united action by the KCTU and FKTU. Rumours of a crackdown are rife. Clearly if the strike goes beyond the 14th the workers position will be tremendously strengthened.
A joint statement from the justice, interior and labour ministers has threatened "stern measures to secure industrial peace and keep legal order." Ironically the government is now using methods that Kim Young Sam, then leader of the opposition to the military regime, condemned in the 1980s. But Kim is now in the hands of Korea' giant chaebols.
The strike has been carried out with a tremendous spirit and flair. The first general strike in history to communicate daily with the world through the internet and the world wide web. The KCTU newspaper department has produced literally millions of papers which are then distributed at shopping centres, department stores, subway and railway stations, along with leaflets and petitions as part of the 'public awareness raising campaign.' The striking car workers have even opened up 27 car checkup points throughout the country to give free auto service!
As the strike movement approaches it's climax, some things have become patently clear. The economic miracle of the so-called tiger economies has been brought to an end, the strikes have shown that rather than being a saviour for world capitalism, economic development has led to a immense strengthening of the working class.
Finally, the Korean working class has come of age. This mighty movement offers us both lessons and inspiration, and must fill the bourgeois with fear and trepidation of what is yet to come.