The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions at 20: Still strong, still fighting!

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) was established on 11 November 1995. From 11 to 14 November, I participated in the KCTU’s 20 year anniversary International Seminar on ‘Global Workers’ Struggle against Labour Rights Deterioration in the Era of Crisis’ in Seoul/South Korea. The seminar did not only include two days of discussions, but also the official anniversary ceremony, an excursion to the Park of Worker Martyrs as well as participation in the large demonstration against labour market restructuring on 14 November. In this blog post, I will reflect on workers’ struggle against restructuring in South Korea and its connections with global developments.

The KCTU – committed to class struggle for workers’ rights

The very fact that the KCTU was officially established on 11 November 1995 is testimony to its commitment to struggle. It was on 11 November 1970 that the workers’ martyr Chun, Tae-il set himself on fire in protest against the super-exploitation of workers in South Korea. The KCTU regards today’s struggles in line with the struggles of the late 1960s, early 1970s.

Memorial for Chun, Tae-il in the Park of Worker Martyrs

The KCTU has got 800000 members with its metal workers’ federation and its public sector federation being equally strong with about 150000 workers each. It is sub-divided into 16 industrial sector federations as well as 16 regional branches. Two of the federations are not officially recognised, the teachers’ union and the state employees’ union, as they include members who were dismissed because of their union activities. The regional KCTU Seoul branch, importantly, includes a migrant workers’ union amongst its affiliates.

The current situation in South Korea is tense. The government has announced drastic labour market restructuring measures to make it easier for employers to dismiss workers (NDTV, 6 August 2015; The Japan Times, 24 September 2015). Unlike the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), the other trade union confederation, which has colluded with government and accepted these measures, and be it with significant internal tensions, the KCTU continues to contest labour market liberalisation. Unsurprisingly, it is subject to strong government repression. On 6 November, just days before the anniversary, the South Korean police attempted a raid on the headquarters of the KCTU-Korean Public Service and Transport Workers' Union (KPTU). Drivers of the food products company Pulmuone had gone on strike on 4 September against the client (cargo owner) Pulmuone calling for union recognition and for Pulmuone to take responsibility for safe and fair rates and conditions.

During the International Seminar itself Han Sang-gyun, the President of the KCTU who was jailed for three years between 2009 and 2012 for his trade union activities (see Foreign Policy in Focus, 12 November 2015), had to go into hiding to avoid arrest by the police prior to the 14 November rally and demonstration. His appearance at the rally in defiance of state oppression was greeted frenetically by KCTU members.

The struggle against neo-liberalism and international solidarity

On the first day of the International Seminar, the presentations and discussions focused on the links between struggles in South Korea and struggles elsewhere. Considering the increasing transnationalisation of production across borders under the authority of transnational corporations (TNCs), the closely related outsourcing along global commodity chains and the increasing informalisation of the work force, the exploitation of workers in the various parts of the global economy is now closely linked.

The European left is fragmented and weak, I remarked in my own contribution on ‘Transnational Solidarity under the global crisis’. This does not mean that there is no resistance in Europe. Neo-liberal restructuring is still contested. However, the various moments of struggle are not linked up into a European-wider movement. Political parties of the left are not without success. Nevertheless, they are frequently hampered by too exclusive a focus on an electoral strategy to gain state power. As the Greek case has demonstrated, the state is still a capitalist state and relying solely on its power in government, Syriza had to revoke its anti-austerity policies quickly in view of the attack by financial markets, European capital and the Troika of European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Rally and demonstration on 14 November

European trade unions, in turn, suffer from what the Norwegian trade unionist Asbjørn Wahl calls the ‘ideology of social partnership’. Current trade union leaders overlook that the post-war gains made were not due to the institutions of social dialogue, but as a result of the structural balance of power in society. After years of severe class struggle in the 1920s and 1930s and in view of a potential alternative in Eastern Europe, employers had been forced into making concessions. Today’s union leaders, however, believe that it was the institutions in themselves, which resulted in gains, and therefore continue discussing with employers and the state, not realising that the change in the underlying power structure ensures that employers no longer feel the need to listen to trade unions. In fact, Salvatore Marra from the Italian CGIL and the ETUC youth committee pointed out, the social dialogue at the European level has become a monologue by the employers.

In Europe too, Marra continued, we have experienced ongoing flexibilisation of labour markets without, however, the creation of the promised jobs. Flexibilisation of labour markets, combined with an increasing attack on trade union rights (see, for example, the current Trade Union Bill in the UK), is not about creating jobs. It has the purpose of weakening labour in order to ensure the continuation of capitalist accumulation. The pressures are the same as in South Korea, so is the purpose. Youth unemployment in Europe is rampant with over 50 per cent in Greece and Spain at its most extreme. A more flexible labour market will not address this.

International Seminar, Day 1

In Argentina, José Omar Juarez and Bruno Dobrusin pointed out, workers and trade unions were betrayed during the 1990s, when an initially labour friendly government started neo-liberal restructuring. Nevertheless, the collapse of the national economy during the crisis in 2001 opened up new opportunities. Workers took over and started running factories themselves. There are signs at the moment that the so-called Pink Tide with left-wing governments in Argentina and Latin America more generally is coming to an end. However, when Greek and Italian workers were left with no alternative but to occupy and run their own factories, they turned to Argentine workers and their experiences. It may be time that European workers more generally turn to experiences in the Global South, when resisting capital’s attack on their rights. And there are also new types of labour struggles emerging in the Global North. As Nicholas Rudikoff from the SEIU reported, the current Fight for $15, i.e. the fight for a minimum wage of $15 per hour in the fast food sector in the US, includes strikes - ultimately essential for social progress - but also much wider coalitions across civil society. Thus, this campaign looks much more like a Civil Rights movement than a 'classical' industrial relations dispute. 

Rally and demonstration on 14 November

The attack on labour knows no borders, concluded Young-Joo Lee, the General Secretary of the KCTU. The current ideological offensive in Korea follows demands by employers to make firing of workers easier. The redistribution of jobs from older to younger workers is given as justification, but labour market flexibilisation has never resulted in more jobs. The KCTU’s objective is to stop these changes and it demands an increase in the minimum wage, irregular workers to be transferred into regular workers and a widening of the social safety net. The rally of 14 November has to be seen as the start of a general people’s uprising.

Strengthening international workers solidarity in the Asia Pacific Region

Day 2 of the International Seminar was dedicated to labour solidarity in the Asia Pacific. The region is crucial for capitalism’s transnational production system with many parts being produced in the various countries, then shipped to China for final assembly, before they are exported to European and North American markets. And the challenge for workers is huge, considering the rather different languages and cultures in the region. As Ek Sopheakdey, Vice President of the Cambodian Labour Congress, explained, large retail chains such as Walmart or H&M are responsible for conditions of super-exploitation in his country. The moment workers demand an improvement in their conditions, employers threaten to move production elsewhere. In fact, the Asia Pacific is one of the most troubled regions as far as labour rights are concerned, outlined the President of the ITUC Asia Pacific, Felix Anthony. With 65 per cent of the region’s workers engaged in the informal economy and highly repressive governments such as in India, ensuring basic labour rights is a huge challenge.

International Seminar, Day 2

The large informal sector is equally a problem in Japan, stated a representative of the All Nippon Construction Transportation Workers Solidarity Union. In a situation, when the Japanese government has signed the hugely destructive Transpacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement and changed the Constitution permitting Japanese troops again to participate in overseas military adventures, it was important to strengthen bottom-up initiatives and develop democracy into more than its current liberal representative variety.

Kyoung-Ja Kim, Vice President of the KCTU concluded the presentations by pointing to the similarities between the Japanese and South Korean labour market reforms. Organising workers along global commodity chains and confronting the abuse of workers’ rights by South Korean TNCs not only in South Korea, but also abroad is as important as is the struggle for the rights of migrant workers in South Korea. The KCTU has established an exchange programme for activists of other unions in the region to foster solidarity across borders and hired a Nepalese unionist to organise Nepalese migrant workers in South Korea.

Rally and demonstration on 14 November

South Korea has not yet signed up to the TPP, but the struggle against free trade agreements has to be at the heart of trade union activities. Labour chapters to date, as the one attached to the TPP, have never been able to counter the negative implications for workers, she argued. Working through the Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights (SIGTUR) too was highlighted as a way to counter the dominance of Northern trade unions within the ITUC and facilitate transnational solidarity. The voice of progressive unions inside the ITUC-Asia Pacific in general had to be strengthened in the move towards more transnational solidarity.

Marching for workers’ rights

A massive mobilisation against labour market reform on 14 November completed the activities around the 20th anniversary of the KCTU. The members of KCTU’s various federations had turned out in force. After an inspiring rally including an address by the KCTU President Han Sang-gyun, workers marched towards the Presidential Palace. Half-way through, they were met by Police barricades. Rather than being cowed into submission to ‘legal’ requirements, workers took the situation in their own hands. With ropes they managed to pull two policy buses out of the barricade. Workers’ rights were never the result of capital’s benevolence. Workers’ rights always followed so-called ‘illegal activities’, forcing employers into concessions. With trade union rights under attack in Europe, it may be time for workers in the Global North to learn from the experience and strategies of workers in the Global South. The KCTU may well show the way.

For an interview with Han Sang-gyun, the President of the KCTU, about the KCTU and current struggles, see Foreign Policy in Focus, 12 November 2015.

For developments since the demonstration, see here and here

Rally and demonstration on 14 November

Prof. Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

17 November 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments welcome!