Green Left Weekly (Australia) | October 27, 2004
SOUTH KOREA: Indefinite general strike planned
Ignoring months of workers’ resistance, the cabinet of President Noh Moo-Hyun’s government finalised a bill on October 19 that will seriously restrict public sector workers’ rights to organise and bargain collectively. In response, the Korean Government Employees Union (KGEU), which the government has had declared illegal, announced it would launch an indefinite general strike from November 1.
Union members will vote on October 27-28 to confirm or reject the general strike proposal.
According to Chosun Ilbo on October 19, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the Teachers Union and a medical sector union immediately declared their intention to join the general strike.
The cabinet decision means that public sector workers below a “level 6” ranking would be allowed to bargain collectively, but would be banned from striking or “engaging in political activities”. Other public servants, including firefighters, soldiers, police and diplomats will be banned from even belonging to a union.
The government’s definition of “political” includes any problem not directly connected to workplace issues. Such “non-bargainable” matters will include ordinances, regulations and the government budget, according to a cabinet announcement. Furthermore, the cabinet rules out accepting even striking as a bargaining tactic, let alone viewing favourably striking in solidarity with workers of other industries or on major social issues.
On October 10, the KGEU organised a “cultural competition”-cum-union rally at a university campus in Seoul. The event, in reality a union rally, incorporated cultural elements to reduce the police’s excuses for banning it. Expecting possible repression, the union refrained from announcing publicly where the venue will be, prompting riot police to guard all the suspected campuses.
Then at 9pm on October 9, when 1500 KGEU members who had previously gathered at a nearby subway station emerged and tried to enter the rally site at Kunkook University, the police tried to stop them by force. At least 10 union members were injured and 40 others were detained. It was 20 hours before they were released. Despite the repression, some 1000 unionists still managed to reach the rally site. The organisers declared the union event open 30 minutes past midnight. Participants spent the night at the venue and launched the official rally at 10 the next morning.
When unionists tried to leave the venue after the event, the police attempted to stop them. But the police barricade was breached and the unionists went to an afternoon rally organised by the KCTU and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU). The protest was attempting to stop the government offensive to casualise more workers, while limiting the rights of casual and part-time workers.
Meanwhile, at an October 8 joint press conference, the KCTU and FKTU announced they would launch a joint struggle on three pressing labour issues: supporting the right of public sector workers to organise; resisting the casualisation of the workforce, and fighting the negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) between South Korea and Japan. The sixth round of talks on the FTA is to take place in early November.
Many trade union and social organisations have worked together in recent months to stop the FTA, arguing that it will result in the abolition of more regulations protecting workers rights, and more privatisation of public services. They also say the average citizens’ access to medical treatment and drugs will also be undermined by the FTA’s excuse to “protect” intellectual property rights.
The two union federations announced on October 8 their intention to call for a general strike to press for the three key demands, and will seek members’ endorsement between October 25 and November 11 in a series of local and regional ballots.