General Strike Against Neoliberalism by 0Xds8Yhy


									                                                     August 1997
                                                      First Draft

      General Strike Against Neoliberalism in South Korea

Seongjin Jeong
Economics Department
Gyeongsang National University
Chinju 660-701, South Korea
Phone: 82-591-751-5745
Fax: 82-591-54-6395
       1. Introduction

        Many people assume that the last general strike in South Korea was a big success.
They often said that last strike was a far more advanced form of struggle than the Great
Workers’ Struggle in 1987. For example, Sonn (1997) argued that “the fact that it was the
first general strike in Korean history, especially a political general strike, is historically
very important. In addition, for the first time in Korean history, the Korean working class
succeeded in defeating a total offensive by capital and the state. ... It was a de facto
surrender to the working class.”1 They also often applauded the leadership of last strike,
the KCTU (Korean Confederation of Trade Unions) leadership, as real militants.
        However, I disagree with these positive assessments. The last strike ended as a
defeat for the working class. Workers’ struggle in South Korea is currently in a deep
slump. Moreover, the main driving force of last strike were rank-and-file workers, not the
KCTU leadership. Rank-and-file workers forced their hesitant leaders to start strike. The
KCTU leaders acted as trade union bureaucrats throughout the strike. The finally passed
labor law was actually same as the disputed labor law which triggered the last strike.
Even some of labor leaders, not to speak of rank-and-file workers, thought that under the
new labor law labor conditions would deteriorate. In a word, the last strike was a
miserable failure for rank-and-file workers in Korea.
        In this paper, I will correct some misconceptions about the last strike in South
Korea. I will focus on the bureaucratization of the KCTU leadership as the main cause of
the failure of the last strike. According to Callinicos (1995), trade union bureaucracy is
defined as “a social layer made up of full time officials with a material interest in
confining the class struggle to the search for reforms within a capitalist framework.”2 I
will also introduce Rosa Luxemburg’s concept of mass strike to interpret the last strike. I
think the concepts of trade union bureaucracy and mass strike are especially useful to
understand the dynamic and conflicting relations among capital, labor leadership and
rank-and-file workers which characterized last strike in South Korea as well as their

       2. Workers’ Struggle Against Neoliberalism

        South Korea was regarded as a model for the economic modernization. But the
strikes in last January and the current crisis of the Kim Youg Sam regime showed that
South Korea is just another capitalist country, full of contradictions, instability and

   Sonn (1997), pp.127, 126.
  Callinicos (1995), p.16. Rosa Luxemburg also characterised the trade union bureaucracy
which 밻xpress themselves in ... the overvaluation of the organization, which from being
a means has gradually changed into an end in itself, a precious thing, to which the
interests of the struggles should be subordinated. From this also comes that openly
admitted need for peace which shrinks from great risks and presumed dangers to the
stability of the trade unions, and further, the over-valuation of the trade union method of
struggle itself, its prospects and its successes.” Luxemburg (1986), p.87.

struggle. On the Korean peninsular today there are two bankrupt regimes facing each
other across the DMZ.3
        The capitalism in South Korea has plunged into the structural crisis since late
1980s with the crumbling of the social structures of accumulation which had sustained 30
years long boom. 4 The explosion of Great Civil Movement and the Great Workers’
Struggle in 1987 signaled the demise of the previous state capitalist structures of
accumulation. As <Table 1> illustrates, more than 3,000 strikes between July and
September involved more than a million workers nationwide (See Table 1). The rapid
growth of the democratic unions and their bargaining power have resulted not only in
altered capital-labor relationships and also in higher real wages. Capital-labor relations
have become less authoritarian and more confrontational.

<Table 1> Workers’ Movement in South Korea, 1981-1995
        Number of     Involved       Number of     Union       Union
        Disputes      Workers        Unions        Membership Intensity
1981     186             34586       2141           966738     20.8
1982      88              8967       2194           984136     20.2
1983      98             11100       2238          1009881     19.4
1984     113             16400       2365          1011522     18.1
1985     265             28700       2534          1004398     16.8
1986     276             46941       2658          1035890     16.8
1987 3749             1262285        4086          1267457     18.5
1988 1873               293455       6142          1707456     19.5
1989 1616               409134       7861          1932415     19.8
1990     322            133916       7698          1886884     18.4
1991     234            175089       7656          1803408     17.2
1992     235            105034       7527          1734598     16.4
1993     144            108577       7147          1667373     15.6
1994     121            104339       7025          1659011     14.5
1995      88             49717       6605          1614800      -
Source: National Statistical Office of Republic of Korea. Major Statistics of Korean
Economy. annual editions.

        To cope with the structural crisis and enhance the competitiveness, Korean
capitalists introduced the “new management strategy.” The “new management strategy”
was designed to combat the labor militancy and recover the control of labor which capital

  In North Korea today we see the ultimate failure of the state capitalism which sought a
particularly extreme form of isolation. As in Eastern Europe, the nationalization of
industry and the land reform in 1946 took place while North Korea was under the Russian
occupation. The workers and peasants took no part in this process. The defection of top
ranking official, Hwang Jang Yup is a sign that the North Korean regime is now in a
critical crisis.
  For more detail, see Jeong (1997).

lost since 1987. They sought to reverse the gains the working class had made since 1987.
Labor was already in the defensive before the general strike. Many of shop-floor
organizations has already been destroyed by the capitalist offensive. As <Table 1>
shows, the power of organized labor in South Korea has continued to decline since 1990.
        “The Industrial Relations Reform” pursued by Kim Young Sam government in
1996 was nothing other than the attempt to institutionalize or extend the “new
management strategy” on a national scale. Worried that South Korea is becoming
internationally uncompetitive, the Kim Young Sam government tried to shake off a
pattern of long and violent strikes that have made this nation the world leader in workers’
struggle for the last 10 years and have led to the world’s highest wage increases over the
same period. 5 Kim Young Sam government decided to permit capitalists to worsen
“individual labor relations,” loosen the conditions of layoff, and make strikes difficult .by
the reactionary revision of labor laws.
        The new labor law allowed companies to dismiss employees - who until now had
enjoyed de facto lifetime employment - and to replace strikers with scabs. It also permit-
ted employers to adopt more flexible patterns of employment, working their employees
up to 56 hours per week, who have already worked the 8th longest hours in the industrial
world.6 Workers were afraid that the new labor laws would result in mass unemployment
and job instability.7 Workers in South Korea have been forced by the ruling class to be
more competitive and more flexible in the name of globalization. In addition, the new
labor law deferred the legal recognition of the national organization of the KCTU until
the year 2000 and said the multiple unions would not be permitted at companies until
        The new labor law was passed in a predawn, surprise session of the National
Assembly in December 26, 1996, without the presence of the opposition lawmakers.
Moreover, along with the new labor law, the amended Agency for National Security
Planning Act was also rammed through the National Assembly, which would restore the
agency’s right to interrogate and arrest those who are suspected of praising Communism
and failing to report North Korean spies.
        Railroading these two reactionary laws clearly demonstrated the offensive of
ruling class who are trying to escape from the structural crisis. Sonn (1997) said that “the

   밙orea has marked the world뭩 highest hourly wage growth rate over the past five
years, including social insurance in manufacturing sector. Hourly earnings stood at $8.23
in 1996, ...., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. .... Korean hourly pay has
grown 16.0 percent annually for five years since 1991, which registers the highest in the
world.” The Korea Herald, August 11, 1997. 밙orea뭩 hourly wages have risen to $8.23,
which approaches Singapore뭩 $8.32, while far surpassing Hong Kong뭩 $5.14,
Mexico뭩 $1.50 and Taiwan뭩 $5.86. Korea뭩 labor costs are about 19 percent higher
than the $6.89 average for the four Asian Tigers.” The Korea Herald, July 29, 1997.
  South Korea has the world뭩 8th longest work-week at 49.2 hours according to ILO,
Year Book of Labor Statistics, 1996.
  밫he nation뭩 unemployment rates had reached to 2.4 percent in January 1997, a rise of
0.5 percentage points from 1.9 percent September last year, .... the rates will increase to
2.7 percent this year with some 584,000 jobless.” The Korea Herald, March 19, 1997.

new law represented a deterioration of already undemocratic labor relations and a brutal
total offensive by capital against the Korean working class with the help of the state.”8
Railroading the retrogressive labor law provided a focus for all the resentments that had
been building up against an economy in structural crisis and the corrupt and reactionary
government presiding over it. The resentments that have accumulated during the long
years of defeat burst out in an explosion of struggles. The announcement of what
happened in the National Assembly set off a wave of stunned fury, both at the content of
the new laws and at the way they had been passed. Workers on strike defied the rulers’
drive towards ‘strengthening the national competitiveness.’ Their main demand was the
complete repeal of the new labor laws passed by a secret session of National Assembly.
         During the three stages of the strike, which lasted for twenty three days from
December 26, 1996 to January 18, 1997, with a stop-and-go pattern, under the leadership
of the KCTU, 403,179 workers from 528 unions participated more than once, and on an
average 189,119 workers from 168 unions participated per day. More surprising, the
KFTU (Korean Federation of Trade Unions), a government-controlled organization that
has 1.2 million members at some 5,900 businesses also voiced outrage and backed the
strike. Although the KFTU is the nation’s largest umbrella union, compared to the KCTU
who has a membership of 500,000 workers at 950 businesses, the KCTU led the last
general strike. Its powerful hegemony in the strike has stemmed from the influential and
well-organized member unions such as those of the Hyundai Group, Korea Telecom Co.
and Seoul Subway.
         While the strike has not come close to paralyzing the national economy, it has
shut down many factories in the automobile manufacturing and shipbuilding sectors, and
disrupted some hospitals and subway systems. However, <Table 1> shows that the size of
the last general strike was far smaller than the Great Workers’ Struggle in 1987 in terms
of the number of disputes or workers involved.
         Last strike enjoyed a high level of public support. According to one poll, some 75
percent of the nation thought that it was right to strike. Support level of Kim Young Sam
had plummeted to 16.9 percent from 29.7 percent before(after?) the strike.9 Indeed, it was
the first strike where the public has been overwhelmingly supportive of the striker. Since
even some sections of the new middle class are being threatened by bosses’ lay-off, and
since Kim Young Sam turned the clock back by trampling parliamentary democracy,
many liberal intellectuals supported the strikes. A variety of South Korean civic
organizations, religious groups and professors came out with statements in favor of the
strikers arguing that the new laws violate workers’ basic rights. The union leaders formed
a popular front-like umbrella organization with middle class groups. The Pan-national
Countermove Committee to Invalidate the Retrogressive Revision of the Labour Law and
the National Security Agency Law was launched. They were especially angry at the
undemocratic way in which the law was enacted. Opposition politicians denounced the
Assembly session as a virtual coup d’etat and a step toward a return to dictatorship. But
organizations led by the middle class never raised political issues in opposition to the
contents of the Labour Law.

    Sonn (1997), p.123.
    The New York Times, January 19, 1997.

        Rather, they only criticized the ways it had been passed. The opposition party led
by Kim, Dae Jung, the National Congress for the New Politics which has been also a
bourgeois party and did not oppose to the new labor law before it was railroaded.
        Although Kim Young Sam depicted the general strike as a challenge to the state,
he was eventually obliged to concede to the people’s demand to reamend the railroaded
laws, as it became clear that the public opinion was totally against him. With the
announcement of Kim Young Sam that he would recognize the KCTU and allow the
National Assembly to reamend a controversial new labor laws, the 23-days long strike
        Last strike was the workers’ struggle against the capitalist attempt to intensify the
exploitation by the neoliberal transformation of capital-labor relations. Last strike differs
from the previous labor unrest in that it was not so much about making gains in wages
and working conditions as about protecting them. In some sense, it signals a shift in
labor’s emphasis from higher pay to job security. Last strike had tremendous significance
as the fight back against the neoliberalism. It is the reason why international labor
movement showed so much solidarity with last strike. International support poured in
from many foreign labor and democratic movements. There were supporting rallies in
over twenty nations and hundreds of letters of support from various foreign labor
organizations and workers, including ICFTU, AFL-CIO, IBT, and COSATU etc.
International labor groups have said the law falls short of international standards
regarding workers’ rights to organize, including the guidelines of the OECD which Korea
joined in 1996. However, it should be noted that what have attracted the attention of
international labor groups were the prohibition of union plurality not the flexiblization of
employment. They were more critical of the undemocratic way in which new labor law
was passed than its content.

       3. Bureaucratic Mass Strike

        Last strike was a bureaucratically controlled strike. Although it is true that there
did exist workers’ passionate participation in the struggle, and that if there had not been
for the rank-an-file workers’ anger and willingness to fight, it would have been difficult
for the KCTU leadership to manage the strike on such a scale, workers’ struggle was
deliberately prevented from crossing the certain limit which the KCTU leadership set.
        Frequent threats to call general strike were no more than the gesture to take
advantage in the negotiation of the new labor law with capitalists. The actual call for
general strike was forced to the KCTU leadership from two opposite forces, first, by the
government which passed the new labor bill by secret session with the ban of the multiple
unions even at the national union level until the year 2000, and second, by the rank-and-
file workers who feared the massive layoffs which was legalized by the new labor law.10

    밒n fact, angry workers harshly criticized the flexible strategy for being too
conciliatory. In that sense, it was the rank-and-file that pushed the leadership into the
strike at the last moment, a leadership which had been hesitant about the actual execution

        The strike in 1996-1997 in South Korea remained wholly in the control of the
union bureaucracy. At the height of the strikes as many as four hundred thousands
workers were involved. But not all of them stopped work for the whole day. Half of the
strikers walked out of work for just four hours. Many strikers worked every morning and
ducking out in the afternoon only if there is a rally. For many the “general strike”
consisted essentially of having long lunch time to attend a rally. From the beginning of
the strike the trade union leaders decided who should stop work and who should not.
Alleged “general strike” was not the general strike in its strict sense of the word, but only
a protracted partial strike.
        The KCTU leadership, worrying that the public opinion would turn against them,
decided to adopt a “flexible strategy,” that is, a protracted multi-stage strikes instead of
general strike. The general strike was actually a strike in ‘waves’ or in ‘stages.’ In most
industries and workplaces not all workers walked out. There were daily mass meetings for
the first several days, organized and tightly controlled by the union leaders. The union
leaders tried as hard as possible to control the size of the meetings or rallies, ordering the
rank and file not to march in the middle of the road or even not to march at all. More
militant tactics of struggle, for example, occupations of factories and workplaces were
avoided by the KCTU leaders. They were obsessed with public opinion. They praised the
German trade union IG Metall whose leadership “knew when to be lenient and when to
be tough” at the time of the engineers’ strike in 1995. Kwon Young Gil, leader of the
KCTU, announced in a mass meeting that the KCTU leadership had rejected the proposal
by the Australian dockers’ union that they would not unload South Korean goods in
solidarity with the strikers. They prevented socialists from distributing agitation leaflets
or papers to rank-and-file workers. In a word, the strike was a bureaucratic mass strike.
        The bureaucratic essence of the KCTU leadership was fully demonstrated when it
hastily called off the third stage of general strike and gave order of so-called “once-a-
week (every Wednesday) national walkout.” But the sudden postponement of the general
strike in the heat of the struggle was a tactical mistake even for the KCTU leadership.
Sonn (1997) also said that, “the decision to postpone the strike after the president’s
promise to re-amend the act has proved to be a vital tactical mistake. ... Had the KCTU
pushed its advantage without suspending the strike in the first place, the result could have
been the total surrender of the government and capital. ... Forgetting the simple truism
that one should ‘strike while the iron is hot,’ the KCTU leadership failed to deliver the
final blow when it still had the chance.”11 (Was that the result of bureaucratization or just
a tactical mistake?)
        By lowering the level of struggle at the moment when exactly the opposite was
needed, KCTU leadership failed to pull out more concession beyond the announcement of
beginning of the negotiation within parliament. Capitalists were pleased with the soft
strategy of labor and praised the KCTU leadership for their “mature attitude.” Rank-and-
file workers’ willingness to step up the struggle was thus bureaucratically blocked by the

of the strike for fear that it might lead to the total destruction of the young KCTU by state
repression.” Sonn (1997), p.124.
   Sonn (1997), p.127.

self-limitation strategy of the KCTU leadership. (We need to show some evidences and
examples of workers’ strong willingness to fight)
         They lost the fish which was almost in the net. Hence the another precious
opportunity for making pre-revolutionary conjunctures was missed. With the
announcement of regret by Kim Young Sam on 21st January 1997, the KCTU declared
their triumph and ended the strike.
         Although the KCTU leadership tried to find the excuse of lowering the intensity
of strike in the fact that support among workers for the walkout was waning and strike’s
efficacy diminishing,12 the very reason why the support of rank-and-file workers waned
down during the strikes was that strikes were from the start controlled by union
bureaucrats and did not reflect their economic concerns.
         Moreover, for many strikers were working part time even during the period of
general strike, strikes were not devastating to the economy as a whole. This is one reason
that the government and capitalists have been able to bear it for alleged 23 days strike. As
a reporter of The New York Times observed, “South Koreans assess strike and find loss
manageable. ... the lost production represents less than 1 percent of Korea’s gross
domestic product, which exceeds $400 billion. ... the strike so far does not seem to have
resulted in as much lost work as in 1989. ... only some people left their job and some
strikers worked part time, allowing companies to continue functioning.”13
         After the strike the trade-union bureaucracy was firmly consolidated in South
Korea. The KCTU leadership under Kwon Young Gil successfully carried out the so-
called flexible strategies which included seeking parliamentary compromise. However, its
price was fatal. The reactionary neoliberal labor law, which was supposed to be dead
during the peak of struggle, returns. The historic workers’ struggle ended as the exchange
of the legalization of the KCTU with the reactionary labor laws. In other words, the
KCTU leadership traded their elevation towards the bureaucracy with the deterioration of
labor conditions of rank-and-file workers.

       4. Pure Political Strike

        For many people, including the KCTU leadership, the main defect of railroaded
labor law was its procedural problem. What was wrong with the law is the fact that it was
railroaded, rather than its anti-labor contents. When the KCTU voiced up, “Down with
Kim Young Sam,” the reason why Kim Young Sam government must be rejected was not
that it was an anti-labor bourgeois(capitalist?) state but it was an anti-democratic regime
which revived the military fascist habit of railroading any law which they liked. For the
KCTU leadership, general strike was the democratic struggle of workers against the
authoritarian government which railroaded the labor law in secret session not the anti-

   A reporter of The New York Times also said that the decision of reducing strikes by the
KCTU leadership reflects the fact that 뱖orker are exhausted and need their paychecks,
and the union recognizes that for now the strike has probably accomplished as much as it
can.” The New York Times, January 19, 1997.
   The New York Times, January 21, 1997.

capitalist struggle. Most of the left, especially the KCTU leadership, tried to reduce the
significance of the railroading of the new labor law to the negation of the democracy.
They could not or would not see it as the capitalist anti-labor offensive. For the KCTU
leadership, the main enemy of workers was the authoritarian regime, or the reactionary
wing of the present government, not the individual capitalists. They constantly
emphasised that, “the struggle is not one by workers but by all the people.” The KCTU
leaders tried hard to confine workers’ struggle within the pure political struggle.
         After the strike, some of the KCTU leadership went so far as to order their rank-
an-file workers to work hard to recover the loss of production during the strikes. Some
labor leaders even said that “we are sorry for the company for walk-out.” Due to this
misdirection by the labor leadership, many of strikers also said that, “this is not a fight
with the company, ... we are fighting with the government.”14 There was no attempt to
combine the political demands with the economic demands from the beginning. The
political struggles against the Kim Young Sam government were not carried out in
combination with the economic struggle against the individual capitalists. The typical
battle cry of the last general strike, “Smash the New Korea Party! Down With Kim
Young Sam,” despite its radical tone, could not reflect the essence of the struggle, that is,
workers’ struggle against the capitalist neoliberal offensive. As a result, the political
struggle has never had the chance to match with the economic struggle which the rank-
and-file workers were anxious to carry out.
         Therefore, last strike cannot be classified as the “mass strike” in the sense of Rosa
Luxemburg. Contrary to all reformists, who always separated the economic struggle and
political struggle, Rosa Luxemburg emphasized the importance of interaction of
economic struggle and political struggle in her classic pamphlet The Mass Strike.15
         While the Great Workers Struggle in 1987 was truly a mass strike, the last strike
was the bureaucratically manipulated political strike. Even in terms of political struggle
itself, last general strike cannot be said as a more advanced form of struggle than the
Great Workers’ Struggle which had advanced as close as to create the pre-revolutionary
conjuncture. 16 (Therefore we need to know how the bureaucratization has developed

   The New York Times, January 19, 1997.
   밇very new onset and every fresh victory of the political struggle is transformed into a
powerful impetus for the economic struggle, extending at the same time its external
possibilities and intensifying the inner urge of the workers to better their position, and
their desire to struggle. After every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit
remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle shoot forth. And
conversely. The workers’ condition of ceaseless economic struggle with the capitalists
keeps their fighting energy alive in every political interval; it forms, so to speak, the
permanent fresh reservoir of the strength of the proletarian classes, from which the
political fight ever renews its strength, and at the same time leads the indefatigable
economic sappers(?) of the proletariat at all times now here and now there, to isolate
sharp conflicts, out of which political conflicts on a large scale unexpectedly explode.”
Luxemburg (1986), pp.50-51.
    Cumings (1997) also admitted there did exist a danger of revolutionary unravel of the
South Korean capitalism in 1987, when he said that 뱓he Reagan administration worried

during the past 10 years and to investigate the factors which have accelerated the
        The main reason why the workers’ power at the factory level was so weak that it
could not defend the strike breaking measures by capitalists despite the splendid features
of mass meetings and demonstrations and why the historic general strike ended so easily
with the order of union leadership was that it lacked the solid basis of economic struggles.
If South Korean workers have traditionally been dominated by syndicalist ideas, last
strike was too abstractly political. Socialists’ argument during the strike that economic
demands should be combined with the demand for the nullification of the labor law were
simply neglected.
        From the total misunderstanding or distortion of the nature and target of the
struggle came the specific forms of struggle which drove the workers out of workplace to
the street and public meetings instead of occupying the factory and physically confronting
the riot police which has been the traditional form of struggle of the militant trade unions
since 1987.
        Pure political struggle alone cannot achieve even its political task. Once the
KCTU stopped the general strike with Kim Young Sam’s announcement of the
renegotiation of the labor law in the National Assembly, workers have no other way but
to wait to see the result of the negotiations from outside of the parliament. It is no strange
that the final version of the newly negotiated law was actually the same as the railroaded

       5. Implications of the Neoliberal Labor Law

       5.1. Flexibilization of the Labor Market

        When the re-amended labor law was passed by the National Assembly on March
11, 1997, the militant labor group complained that the compromised bill still prohibited
school teacher and public servants from engaging in free union activities. The new labor
legislation undertook no change for the clauses concerning the freedom of association for
public sector workers and teachers. The Korean Teachers and Educational Workers
Union (KTU) with a member of over 40,000 teachers will continue to be outlawed. They
were also upset at the provision in the law that the principle of no-pay-for-no-work during
strikes was stipulated.
        Capitalists also expressed as much regrets on the new labor law as workers. They
were especially unhappy with the introduction of multiple unions, delay of employee
layoffs for two years and less than clear ban on the payment for full-time unionists. As to
the disputed layoff system which had been legalized in the previous labor bill, the
negotiating legislators agreed to retain it but put off its implementation by two years. The
new law only allows layoffs by companies that have severe financial difficulties. Clauses

that a full-fledged revolution might topple the regime. It had already dispatched a career
CIA officer to Seoul, James R. Lilley, to be the American ambassador; this was highly
unusual but a reflection of fears in Washington that Seoul Korea might unravel.” p.388.

that permitted dismissals resulting from mergers and acquisitions and technical
improvements have been removed. Meanwhile, the old system, under which companies
need court approval to dismiss workers, remains in effect. They argued that the final
version ran counter to its original intent of strengthening the national competitiveness.
         However, it is clear that the life-time employment system was fundamentally
destroyed by this new labor law. It means that capitalists succeeded to preserve the
essence of the railroaded labor law which triggered the general strike. Most of capital’s
demand were met with minor restrictions. The final version of the new labor law is
nothing but an outcome of political negotiations disregarding the basic workers’ rights.
         From now on, layoffs of workers would not be illegal. While the past labor laws
had no related regulations on workers’ layoffs, the new laws regulate that the layoff of
workers will be legally possible at work sites beginning 1999. The article reads as
follows. “Article 31. Employment Adjustment for Managerial Reasons. (1) If an
employer wants to dismiss a worker for managerial reasons, there shall be urgent
managerial needs” [Labor Standard Act (LSA) 31:1] The transition from the labor law
system which has no lay-off related regulations in labor laws to that which has it would
make a significant difference. Over the past years, employers tended to avoid laying off
workers because they had to depend on court verdict on a case-by-case basis in a lengthy
and costly legal battle for approval. Although the new labor laws legalized the layoff of
workers only in the case of a business administration emergency, the vaguely worded law
wll allow any business claiming financial difficulty to lay off workers. The
implementation of the layoff system will inevitably undermine the job stability.
Downsizing is now coming to Korea. Newspaper articles and TV dramas in South Korea
were filled with stories of “honorary retirees,” people induced by their companies to retire
early in return for a large severance package.
         Together with the layoff system introduced is the flexible working hour system in
the new labor law. Contrary to the previous fixed-hour system in which workers used to
work a designated time zone - usually 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. -, the new labor law, Article 50 on
Flexible Working Hour System of LSA, lets them work “flexibly.” According to that
article, there is no longer fixed time zone for workers. Only 12 ceiling work hours per day
exists. Under the flexible work-hour system, employers can have workers perform their
jobs at any time, day or night, within the boundary of 48 hours per week on a two-month
basis. If employers and workers reach an agreement, the new labor laws allows for work
within the boundary of 56 ceiling work hours per week on a monthly basis. For the sake
of employers, the flexible work hours will likely to bring about the effect of saving labor
costs because they will be able to freely move the work hours from daytime to evening.

       5.2. Consolidation of the Trade Union Bureaucracy

        The Trade Union and Labor Relations Adjustment Act (TULRAA) of the new
labor law brings about a reform of the legal framework of the Korean industrial relations
which had for a long time enforced a monopoly on union representation. Over the past
five decades, the South Korean government held on to the restrictive union per business
policy which banned the formation of two or more unions at a single work site. The

restrictive union policy had also applied to the organization of umbrella unions, the
coalition bodies of unions, at a nationwide or industrial level. The nation has authorized
the established FKTU, the state licensed union, as the only legal umbrella union body,
while the KCTU was not recognized. During the 1970s and 1980s, the government tightly
controlled the labor movement and allowed only activities of licensed unions.
         The March 11 enactment removes the by-law included in the December 26
aberration which stipulated a 3 year moratorium on union plurality at the level of
federations and national centers. It continues to maintain, however, the 5 year moratorium
on the union pluralism at the enterprise level. The new law removes an important
segment of the international and domestic concern about the violation of freedom of
association inherent in the Korean labor law. Thus the new labor law allow workers to
organize unions, regardless of the ceiling on the number of unions, thus end the aged one-
union-per-business policy. The revised labor bill sided with the KCTU leadership when
legislators dropped a clause banning multiple unions and decided to authorize the KCTU.
The compromise bills allow the immediate formation of multiple umbrella labor groups, a
move to legalize the outlawed KCTU which orchestrated the recent strike, though the
formation of more than two unions at one work site would not be permitted until 2002.
The new law immediately legalizes the militant KCTU that under the original bill would
have had to wait three years for recognition.
         In addition, the new labor law would strengthen the power of the full-time union
officials in the collective bargaining process. There exists an important clause in the new
labor law which strengthens the power of trade union bureaucracy independent of the
rank-and-file workers. Article 29 Authority of Bargaining and Making Agreements of
TULRAA states that only the representative of a trade union shall have the authority to
negotiate and to sign the collective agreement. It reads as follows. “The representative of
a trade union has the authority to bargain with employers or employers’ association, and
to make collective agreements for the trade union and union members.” [TULRAA 29:1]
The new law paves the way for an automatic adoption of a legally binding collective
agreement based on the agreement between the employers and a panel of union officials.
         Under the previous law, a union can put a provisional collective bargaining
agreement arrived through negotiations with the employer to a vote of the general
meeting of the union membership. This is a kind of ratification procedure. The previous
law did not stipulate a ratification process nor did it specifically outlaw such a process.
The ratification procedure adopted by many unions since 1987 has acted as a direct
democratic process that increases the accountability of a union leadership and the
democratic participation of the rank-and-file workers in the union’s decision making. The
new provision introduces a legal basis for a judicial or administrative intervention against
a popular rejection of an agreement between the union officer and the employer. It also
foreshadows an intensified employer attempt to persuade, bribe, threaten union
negotiating team that would be rejected by the rank-and-file members. This points to the
possibility of the collusion between the elected union leaders and capitalists.
         The new labor law will accelerate the reorganization of hitherto company-level
unions into industry-level unions by legalizing the multiple unions in the industry level
and lifting the ban on the third party intervention. Indeed, the organization of the
industry-level unions has been the most important task of the KCTU since its

inauguration. The KCTU official documents argues that, “the trade union system by
enterprise impedes workers’ power to organize and struggle, limits the finance of the
trade union movement, and prevents development of workers’ consciousness. It also
prevents the assurance of homogeneity in working conditions, collective bargaining and
collective struggle, or united bargaining and united struggle of part time workers and
workers in small and medium enterprises. The KCTU will overcome the limitations of
enterprise based trade union system which prevents the development of the whole union
movement, by promoting an industrial based trade union system.”17 With the new labor
law, allowing the right of collective bargaining to the industrial-level unions not just to
company-level unions, it is expected that the existing company-level unions soon
reorganize themselves into big industrial unions.
        The KCTU leadership tended to blame the weak labor, or so-called “The Crisis of
Labor Movement,” since 1990 for the fact that the labor unions were organized as
company unions not industrial unions. The KCTU leadership found the panacea for the
decline of organized labor since 1990 in the formation of the industrial union system.
However, there is no reason to imagine that industrial unions are more revolutionary or
more effective organizational form for the workers’ struggle than company-level unions.
However, it is nothing but a fetishism of organization. The transition from the form of
company unions to the form of industrial unions itself cannot insure more revolutionary
consciousness of workers. The organizational form of industrial union is not more
revolutionary form than company union. The belief that industrial union is easier form of
organization to promote workers’ solidarity than company union is also not true. Neither
the industrial union nor the company union can be immune from sectionalism. The last
general strike as well as the Great Workers’ Struggle in 1987 were both carried out on the
level of companies and regions. Moreover, what the Great Workers’ Struggle created and
the tradition of militant trade unionism defended since 1987 was not the industrial union
but the company union. Democratic unions, created at the level of individual company
during the Great Workers’ Struggle in 1987, was more like the strike committee at the
work site than the usual trade union. It has enjoyed more internal democracy than
industrial union in the Western world. If the transition from the company union system to
the industrial union system is intended as a means to remove the militant and democratic
tradition of company union, it would be a great backward for the workers’ struggle.
Under the industrial union system, it is very likely that the dual process of
bureaucratization of industrial union leadership and the hollowing-out the company-level
combat organization occur. The industrial union system, with its bigger bureaucratic
apparatus and the long distance from the work-site, could serve as an effective
mechanism of labor control for capital. In a word, industrial union leadership is very
likely to become trade union bureaucracy. (Then, we need more powerful and democratic
types of workers’ organization to fight against the harsh oppression from the outside and
undemocratic bureaucratization growing inside. Industrial union itself is a problem ? or
can we have a better industrial organization?)
        From now on, the differences between the KCTU and the FKTU would become
less important than what unites them. As Callinicos (1995) said, “Even the most radical

     KCTU (1997b).

left-wing leader is still part of the same social group as his or her right-wing counterparts
- the union bureaucracy. This means that he or she is likely, at crucial junctures, to hold
back the struggle, and to strike rotten compromises with the employers.”18
        Furthermore, the KCTU leadership embraces the capitalist ideology of
“strengthening the national competitiveness,” when they advocated so-called progressive
way of strengthening national competitiveness instead of reactionary one, rather than
rejecting the dogma of competitiveness itself. If the KCTU leadership would not sever
with the competitiveness ideology and stands for the “social partnership” as a way of
strengthening the national competitiveness, international solidarity, one of their favorite
slogan, would become empty phrase. The capitalist ideology of competitiveness should
not take the place of the principle of solidarity in the world as well as in the workplace.
        The KCTU also wishes workers’ movements to join “social partnership” with
capitalists rather than try to develop workers’ movements as the alternative against the
capitalism. The KCTU’s loyalty to the state, for example their concerns about the health
of national economy, is the clearest sign of the limitations of their trade unionism - their
tendency to confine workers’ struggle within the framework of the existing system.
Behind the KCTU’s collaborationist flexible strategy lay their basic political line, that is,
so-called, “Labor Movement With Nation.” The KCTU leadership also talks about the
South African COSATU and the Brazilian PT as ‘models’ which South Korean workers
should pursue.
        After the strike, the KCTU even participated in the “Movement of Revitalizing
the Economy,” which is led by the government and capitalists. The effect was fatal one.
Not only the wage increase bid by unions was severely cut down but the workers’
struggle suddenly went down. So-called “Labor Movement With the Nation” is nothing
but “Labor Movement With the Capitalists.” The slogan of “Labor Movement With the
Nation” is the ideology of the trade union bureaucracy which justifies the KCTU’s
participation in the “social partnership” with the capitalists and government. With the
adoption of the political line of “Labor Movement With the Nation” the KCTU leadership
abandoned the spirit of “Liberation of Labor” of its predecessor, the Council of National
Democratic Unions (CNDU), which was the illegally organized federation of democratic
unions from all the regions in the nation to fight governmental repression. The KCTU
leaders adopted the reformist strategy of consolidating those democratic reforms achieved
after 1987 and showed self-restraint in order to avoid a governmental crack down.
        With the transformation of the CNDU to the KCTU, the trade union bureaucracy,
a distinctive social layer of full-time officials with interests different to those of the rank
and file, began to emerge. Since 1990s we have seen the formation of a specific group,
based on the workers’ movement, whose role is to act as an intermediary between labour
and capital and to seek to reconcile their interests. The role as go-between means that the
interests of the trade union bureaucracy conflict with those of the rank-and-file workers
they are supposed to represent. The struggles workers wage, even simply to wrest reforms
out of the existing system, may threaten its stability. So again and again union leaders
intervene to prevent these struggles from getting out of control and end them on terms
which fall far short of their members’ aspirations. Indeed, the interests of the KCTU

     Callinicos (1995), p.21.

leadership are different from those of rank-and-file workers and sometimes seriously
conflicted with them, as shown during last strike. (We need to show more evidences and
internal conflicts due to the bureaucratization.) While the main thrust which forced the
KCTU leadership to lead the strike was the expectation of its legalization, the background
of the unexpectedly strong support of rank-and-file workers was the apprehension about
the mass layoffs enabled by the new labor law.
        The development of labour bureaucracy is accompanied by the emergence of
social-democratic party committed to seeking the reform of capitalism. Social democratic
party is the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy. Like the trade union
bureaucracy, social democracy both reflects the struggle of the organized working class
and seeks to contain it within the framework of the existing system. The experiences of
South Africa and Brazil show that even a militant workers’ movement may develop a
reformist bureaucracy which leads to the dead-end of social democracy.19 Even militant
trade unionism isn’t immune to bureaucratic and reformist tendencies. One of the top
tasks of the KCTU is also to build its own reformist political party. Recently, the KCTU
leadership decided to participate in the coming presidential election with their own
candidate. The problem is that they excessively put their efforts on the political work,
while neglecting the urgent economic struggle at the workplace.

       5.3. Blocking the Rank-and-File Workers’ Struggle

        Workers’ struggle in South Korea since 1987 took the form of mass strike. The
economic strike was from the beginning illegal political strike. As Park (1993) said, “the
typical sequence has been illegal strikes first, followed by effective negotiation and
bargaining between labor and management. This reversed the standard of most countries
where collective bargaining occurs first, followed by strikes only after the negotiations
have come to an impasse. This unique characteristic of the Korean labor movement
followed from the fact that collective bargaining practices had not been institutionalized
in Korea. ... Labor disputes were frequently resolved by direct government

   In South Africa the main independent unions emerged in the 1970s and early 1980s.
The trade union bureaucracy began to take shape in the mid-1980s. By the late 1980s the
South African Communist Party (SACP) was transformed into a mass workers’ party.
After the transition to liberal democracy began in 1990, the African National Congress
under Nelson Mandela in alliance with the SACP and COSATU adopted a social-
democratic policy of creating a benevolent social capitalism. But since the democratic
elections in April, 1994, the Mandela government which was supported by the SACP and
COSATU has abandoned its programs for reforms. Under the pressure from financial
markets, it has adopted the policies of deregulation, privatization, and flexible labor
market. The oppressed black majority in SA is still waiting for the real improvement in
their impoverished material conditions. A remarkably similar process has taken place in
Brazil, where the Workers Party (PT) emerged from the unions to become by the early
1990s a right-wing social democratic party.

intervention.”20 Furthermore, strikers often broke the law by taking the violent form of
factory occupation, street demonstration, physical confrontation with riot police. Strikers
often wielded iron bars and threw rocks, clashing with riot policemen who fired tear gas.
Workers strike almost always confronted with the massive repression by government.
There scarcely exists the economic strike in its real sense. Strikes triggered by economic
concerns easily turned out to be political strikes which were often sustained by economic
strikes of other companies. The characteristic of the capital accumulation in South Korea,
e.g. state capitalist development based upon superexploitation of workers, force the
workers’ struggle to combine economic demands with political demands.
        The first independent trade unions emerged during the Great Workers’ Struggle in
1987. They were called as “democratic unions.” The democratic unions were born at
individual workplaces as the strike organizing committee. In this sense, democratic
unions are more similar to the “soviet” rather than the normal trade unions. They
contained the seed of “soviets.” Most leftists in South Korea could not or would not (have
been failing to?) recognize the revolutionary essence of Democratic Union. They simply
stick to the Stalinist strategy of “All People’s Struggle” rather than developing the
revolutionary potential of democratic unions. This is the reason why the street
demonstration by “all people” not the mass strike by workers was still conceived to be the
main form of revolutionary struggle even after the Great Workers’ Struggle. The
transformation of military democratic unions into the ‘pure trade union’ movement has
been accelerated with the inauguration of the KCTU, while political struggles were driven
out of factory. This was a complete separation of economics and politics.
        The Kim Young Sam government attempted to eliminate last remnants of the
tradition of militant trade unionism with the new labor law. First, they attempted to tame
the leaders of militant trade unionism by allowing them to elevate toward trade union
bureaucracy and accelerating the divisions within the working class. Second, they
attempted to directly block the right to strike by introducing following pernicious anti-
strike clauses. If the major beneficiary of the new labor law is the KCTU leadership, for it
elevated them to the stable status of trade union bureaucracy, the largest loser were rank-
and-file workers as the life-time employment system was abolished and the workers’ right
to struggle would be severely restricted under the new labor law.
        In an attempt to protect strike-stricken businesses from going bankrupt, the new
labor law grants employers the right to use substitute workers during union strikes. The
new labor law allows employers to fill job slots vacated by striking workers with “other
non-striking workers in the same business” in order to keep production. The legalization
of using substitute workers during strikes will significantly weaken the unions’
bargaining power and will allow employers to run their business stably. For example, if
Hyundai Precision Co. Ltd. suffers from a walkout at a manufacturing factory in
Changwon, the company can utilize substitute workers from another factory in Ulsan.
        Sending a clear-cut message of ‘no-work, no-pay’ to unions, the new labor law
regulates that employers do not have to pay workers during strikes. According to prior
wage payment practices, somewhat different from international standards, a significant
number of union workers have been given their wages during strikes. Trade unions often

     Park (1993), p.331.

threatened to intensify strikes if employers refuse to compensate for wage losses in the
wake of work stoppage caused by union strikes. But the new law bans payment of wage
for the period of an industrial action to the workers who participated in an industrial
action. 21 In other words, the new law regulates that employer have “no obligation” to
compensate the wage losses incurred by strikes and that unions calls for wages during
strikes be punished. Due to the no-pay-for-no-work regulations, unions are inevitably
required to take a full responsibility for unionized workers’ wage losses during strikes.
The new law will surely refrain unions from going on strike.
         It had been a longstanding labor practice in Korea that companies paid wages to
full-time union leaders who exclusively engaged in union activities. Though management
officials considered the practice inappropriate, they may have deemed the payment to
union leaders as being necessary to coax unions to be more cooperative during collective
bargaining. But under the new labor law, companies don’t have to pay wages to full-time
union officials from 2002. While some large unions will be able to afford to finance the
payment for their full-time union leaders with their own revenues, smaller unions are
expected to have serious financial difficulties.
         The new law introduces a new provision which may result in the “restriction on
industrial action” and likely lead to the conflict, litigation, and imprisonment in the
course of an industrial dispute. The new article stipulates that “industrial action shall not
be conducted in ways of obstructing or interrupting entry to the premises, work and other
normal services by individuals who are not related to the disputes or want to provide
work, and violence or threat to persuade into participating in industrial action shall not be
used.” [TUIRAA 38:1] This article would result in a drastic increase in the imprisonment
of workers for their trade union activities and exercise of the right to strike, as this article
is accompanied by a penal provision which stipulates that anyone who violates above
article “shall be punished by imprisonment up to three years, or by a fine up to thirty
million Won.” [TULRAA 89:1] The new labor law also prohibits industrial actions which
would damage “operational equipment,” and impair or deteriorate “raw materials or
manufactured goods.” [TULRAA 38:2] This adds to the another clause which stipulates
that “industrial action may not be conducted to stop, close, or interrupt the normal
maintenance and operation of security facilities of a workplace.” [TULRAA 42:2] These
two provisions are tantamount to an actual ban on industrial action in some industries
such as chemical industry. Furthermore, the new law criminates the occupation of factory
by workers that has been one of the most important strategies of militant trade unionism
since 1987. The article reads as follows. “Article 42. Prohibition of Acts of Violence. (1)
Industrial action shall not be taken in the form of violence or destruction, or by
occupation of production facilities or installations related to important businesses or the
equivalent thereof as determined by the Presidential Decree.” [TULRAA 42:1] A

  The article reads as follows: 밃rticle 44. Prohibition of Demands for Wage Payment
during the Period of Industrial Action. (1) Employers shall have no obligation to pay
wages during a period of industrial action to workers who did not provide labor because
of their participation in industrial action. (2) Trade unions shall not take industrial action
in order to demand and achieve wage payment for a period of an industrial action.”

violation of this clause is also punishable by a maximum penalty of 3 years imprisonment
or 30 million Won in fine. [TULRAA 89:1] The ban on occupation of production
facilities will make a strike action within the company virtually impossible. Even such
dispute activites as a sit-down strike or work-by-rule or slow down which take place
within the production facilities may be regarded as an ‘occupation’ banned by this clause.
         The new law also introduces a new provision which prohibits ‘unofficial’ or
‘wildcat strikes.’ The new law stipulates that “union members shall not take part in
industrial action which is not led by a trade union. [TULRAA 37:2] This clause is against
the principle of the freedom of association and the right of collective action. Its aim is to
criminate the strike in a non-union workplace or where there exists a ‘yellow union’
which lacks legitimacy or is deemed not to be representative. The clauses which give the
right of collective bargaining only to the labor union and do not allow the strike organized
by non union will check the spontaneous struggle of rank-and-file workers.
         The effects of new labor law are already felt. If the last strike had been a big
success, as repeated by the KCTU leadership, we should not have seen the decline of
workers’ power after the strike. However, workers’ struggle in South Korea have
suddenly fallen into slump after the general strike. Labor diputes over wages decline
substantially. Moreover, the number of work sites with no negotitions taking place at all
are growing. The number of work sites with wage freeze are also increasing. Agreements
on a wage freeze have spread among businesses nationwide as both unions and businesses
try to deal with the economic downturn. The unions’ backdown stance in labor bargaining
sessions are not hard to understand if we consider the demoralisation of workers by the
defeat of the last strike and the sagging economy. For the first quarter of 1997, the
nation’s wage increase rate stood at 2.9 percent, a significant decrease from the 6 percent
rise during the same period of the last year.22

         6. Concluding Remarks

         The general strike in South Korea was the struggle against the capitalist offensive
to intensify the exploitation through the legalization of neoliberal industrial relations,
though it was misled and bureaucratically manipulated by the KCTU leadership as the
democratic political struggle. As Sonn (1997) said, “the strike is an important stepping
stone ... to fight against the globalization of capital and global neo-liberalism.”23 Despite
its failure, the strike had an enormous political impact. First of all, workers’ political
consciousness has been raised. Workers witnessed that the capitalist state retreated when
they moved in solidarity. The strike also pulled down Kim Young Sam’s popularity and
made difficult the incumbent party’s victory in coming presidential election.
         Strike also proved that only the working class has the power to transform society.
It showed that working class is not an abstraction but a reality. Indeed, industrial working
class in South Korea today is larger than it was in the whole world when Marx wrote the
Communist Manifesto. Recently we have seen this working class become muscular again

     The Korea Herald, April 1, 1997.
     Sonn (1997), p.128.

not just in South Korea but all over the world. In these past few years there have been
massive militant strikes in France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Belgium, and most recently in
America. These struggles demonstrated the continuing power of the working class to
paralyse the economy and throw the ruling class into crisis. Postmodernist ramblings that
the working class was declining or disappearing were gone with the explosion of
workers’ struggle.
        However, the working class in South Korea is currently facing another difficult
obstacle on the road to revolutionary transformation of the society. While workers’
organizations at the workplaces are being rapidly ruined by the neoliberal offensive of
capital, a mammoth apparatus of the trade union bureaucracy emerged. Without
overcoming trade union bureaucracy, especially its collaborationism and national
reformism, workers can hardly achieve even their economic demands, let alone the
revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist exploitation. Workers in South Korea need to
fight against the trade union bureaucracy as well as capitalists in order to win daily
economic struggle. Rank-and-file workers must find out democratic ways to have their
own organizations and solidarities and throw away the trade union bureaucracy. The most
urgent task of workers’ struggle in South Korea is neither the participation in coming
presidential election nor the organization of the industrial unions but the rebuilding of
workers’ power at the workplaces which the “new management strategy” and the
neoliberal new labor law attempt to eliminate.


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Christian Institute for the Study of Justice and Development (1997), The Amendment of
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Cumings, Bruce (1997), Korea’s Place in the Sun, W.W.Norton & Company.
Jeong, Seongjin (1997), “The Social Structures of Accumulation in South Korea:
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Kim, Sekyun (1997), “Whither the Labor Movement?” Workers and the Future, No.22.
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The Korea Herald,
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Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (1997b), “Official Document,” http://kpd.sing-
Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (1997c), “General Strike in South Korea,”
Luxemburg, Rosa (1986), The Mass Strike, Bookmarks, London.
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Park, Se-il (1993), “The Role of the State in Industrial Relations: The Case of Korea,”
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Sonn, Hochul (1997), “The ‘Late Booming’ of the South Korean Labor Movement,”
        Monthly Review, July-August, 117.


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