in the Annual Korean Labor Wars
By Greg Moses
Two-thousand Korean bank workers boarded fifty buses this week and took their strike to a training center on the outskirts of Seoul, where still, “it looked quite crowded,” said a union official speaking by telephone.
“There was serious fear of a police blitzkrieg,” explains Kim Sung-jin, director of external cooperation for the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU).
The bank workers, many of them women, were confined in a tall building at the HanMi or KorAm building in Seoul, where there was not much space for their 12-day-old sit in. Lately, government officials had warned that the strike was wearing their patience. So union leadership, fearing a “safety issue” moved the sit-in away from the city center.
Also in Seoul, a Saturday night teachers’ union “sleep in” near the “Blue House” (Korean equivalent of the “White House”), found teachers outnumbered by police two-to-one: “If we have a demonstration, the police demonstrate for us,” says Kim Yong-kook, director of welfare for the Korean Teachers and Educational Worker’s Union (FTU), also speaking by telephone. “They always have two or three police for every teacher.”
Pounded by heavy rain from Typhoon Mindulle, 1,500 teachers moved into a subway station, where they were blockaded all night by 3,000 police. “It was very hot in there,” says Kim. “There was not much air.” In the morning, teachers held an outdoor rally, before returning home about noon.
In both actions, workers report difficulty getting the right people to the bargaining table. Teachers say the Minister of Education is the only one with the power to address their concerns over teaching hours and private school regulation. “The Education Minister should attend the meetings with teachers,” says FTU’s Kim. “But he never attends.”
(In primary grades and middle school, the teachers are asking for 18 hours of class time per week. In high school, 16 hours. For more background see Counterpunch, July 4.)
A similar situation is happening with the bank workers. In the face of a takeover by Citigroup, workers at HanMi/KorAm want assurances of job security, bank independence, and continued listing of their banks on the Korean stock exchange. But the Korean management can’t deliver these goods, and Citigroup officials aren’t coming to the table, says FKTU’s Kim.
Meanwhile, warnings from capitalist quarters were repeated twice last week in the pages of the Korea Times: unless Korean labor simmers down, global investors might recant pledges to “expand their investments” on the peninsula. Capital might simply move to more destitute terrain, where workers are less demanding. In this case, China.
The charge that Korean labor is active has some evidence behind it. During this annual season of contract renewal in Korea, migrant workers continue a 230-day-old sit-in, auto workers went on strike, a teacher’s union taught anti-war classes, the minimum wage was hiked by 13 percent, the five-day work-week of 40 hours became a matter of law, Koreans have withdrawn more than two billion dollars from the banks that have been taken over by Citigroup, and airline unions promised they would not transport troops or war tools to Iraq. These are only highlights.
“These Korean unions make our unions look like the PTA!” exclaims one Counterpunch reader via email.
It was the financial worker’s strike that especially provoked one economist to complain to Korea Times reporter Kim Yon-se: “It is nonsense that there are labor unions at financial service companies.” Such unions simply don’t exist in good capitalist places like the USA or Hong Kong. To which the chief of the Office of Investment added, “The abolishment of labor unions in Korea is very difficult.”
But the threats from capital to withhold their investments, and the way the threats are reported in the financial press, remind us how our world is ordered by a deadly double standard. If workers withdraw their previously-pledged labor, it is reported as “labor unrest.” If capital threatens to withdraw its not-yet-paid investment, it is treated as “fair warning.” In this double standard world, profit travels without a passport, anywhere it pleases. Workers, on the other hand, have always much explaining to do.
The financial press reserves no misgivings for bank czars who get together and threaten to cut off funds to an entire country. Bank workers, on the other hand, apparently, should confine their conversation to football and home improvement.
“They don’t want workers organized,” says Kim of FKTU. “It is very simple-minded, cold-blooded neo-liberalism: ‘You keep your mouth shut. Whatever we decide, you accept it.’ That kind of nonsense we cannot accept. If the USA is the champion of democracy and representation, then these principles should be respected by USA’s Citigroup.”
Remember the labor theory of value? You know that quaint assertion that no capitalist ever banked a buck not produced in the first place by a worker? What does the financial press think about that? Isn’t it nonsense for the financial press to promote a world order where capital takes profit from who it pleases, transfers wealth where it pleases, and acts as if workers were only the takers, never the creators of capitalist wealth in the first place?
Funny and illogical were the words used by an unnamed financial regulator to describe the workers’ demand that their bank not be taken out of the Korea Stock Exchange. “The issue of listing or de-listing fully depends on the decision of the management,” he scolded.
Yet, despite scolding and warning, financial workers have not backed down. They argue that independent listing is crucial to “transparency.” In other words, they want to see what Citigroup is doing with Korean cash flow. The workers’ actions would be funny and illogical if one presumed that the money in the bank didn’t belong to them in the first place.
Writing in Asia Times, David Scofield echoes concerns that Korean unions are guilty of “bad behavior.” With China sitting right next door, Korean capital is moving in “a veritable exodus” to that land of cheap and non-militant labor.
“The tendency of South Korea’s unionists to resort to confrontation rather than compromise in pursuit of their demands is weakening the nation’s economic competitiveness at a time when regional competition has never been higher,” writes Scofield. Hyundai and Kia workers had actually proposed (but did not get) wages that would exceed those of auto workers in the USA.
Yet Scofield admits that labor unions have played a significant role in democratizing Korea. And they do have a legitimate gripe, he says, when it comes to “the sorry state of the nation’s under-funded social welfare programs.” Yet, while Scofield scoffs at proposals to capture five percent of corporate profits to pay for more social investment, he offers no alternative solution.
Analysts who get their ideas placed in the corporate press seem unable to put themselves in the shoes of workers. While they can scoff and scold labor, they have no lectures prepared for capital. The workers, as usual, must speak for themselves.
“We are living in this country as working women,” begins the Declaration of the Seoul Women’s Trade Union that was founded in 1999. “Most of us are temporally-hired workers, part-timers, dispatched workers, intern-employees, underpaid and low-skilled workers at small businesses with less than five employees or the jobless.”
“From the moment of knocking the door of job markets to retirement, we continuously face frequent and various discriminations just for one reason; we were born as women in this male-dominated nation. Inhumane treatments, sexual violence and low-skilled jobs are what we routinely have to go through at the workplace. For all, we never gave up our dreams of leading a life as human.”
Or consider the words of Korean migrant workers, who call the Seoul women their inspiration: “We have nothing now. So far, socially we have thoroughly been alienated from the law and system in this society. That is the reason why we can stand up.”
I also spoke briefly by telephone to the anonymous author of the past weeks’ “struggle reports” that have been posted at the website of the Korean migrant workers union and distributed via Indymedia [see: migrant.nodong.net]. “You have to call me at night,” he apologized. “During the day I have to go to protests.” Does an economist want to tell him that Korean workers accept no compromises?
“Friday at noon the result of the [minimum wage] negotiations was published: just 641,840 Won ($ 563),” says the struggle report of June 25-27. “So, many workers, still there from the night before, got really angry about the scanty result and left the scene under strange abuses.” From the workers’ point of view, the results of that battle were de-moralizing, not uncompromising.
Back at FKTU headquarters in Seoul, Kim says that a statistical survey of the number of labor disputes would show a fairly steady annual rate of about 320 cases per year, a number he says is down from peaks of the last decade.
“I guess it’s a sort of comparative analysis,” says Kim in response to allegations that Korean workers are too militant. “Korean unions raise their voices to have their fair share and secure their rights, while in some developing countries, especially in Asia, workers are not very well organized or strong enough to represent workers complaints. In comparison, it is easy to say that Korean unions are radical and militant, so they say they’ll move their investments to other countries.”
“And what they say is partly true,” concedes Kim. “Yet they still find that Korea is an attractive market and that Korean human resources are quite good.”
“We also understand the challenges coming from outside,” continues Kim. “So I think we are in a state of transition, moving away from quite a bit of action in the 1990s concerning wage increases. I am foreseeing that we are reaching a more mature stage of industry relations with reduced labor disputes.”
The number one issue for the bank workers is job security. They do not want to be “downsized” by a Citigroup merger. The next important issue is their bank’s independence. So this is not a dispute about pay. It is about labor’s right to affect mulitnational policy. And it is the first strike ever by the workers at KorAm.
In the big industries, especially the ones that are increasingly owned by multinationals, Kim says radical activity continues because management, “is not serious enough in listening to the other side.”
Take the Citigroup approach, for example. “Sadly, Citigroup is simply ignoring the union,” says Kim. “If such things happen, the dispute can only be prolonged.”
Instead of double standards from the financial press, we need some plain talk about what kind of world humans deserve to build. As Kim points out, the ironies are especially striking, if you will, when big capital comes cruising for profit and flying the American flag, too. What do they care about democracy and representation?
When capitalists cross borders, they are praised by the financial press as entrepreneurs, even ambassadors of freedom. But when workers follow, they’re called illegal immigrants. Multinational corporations are taken for granted. Multinational people are rounded up for questioning and deportation.
What we need is a world where labor gets to live at least as freely as capital. And that’s why this week’s Korean wars are important struggles for workers everywhere. As for capitalists who openly threaten to retaliate against nations that harbor militant workers; why, there oughtta be a law!