Friday, July 17, 2009

[olympiaworkers] Korean Sanggyong Strike Up Against the Wall

The Ssangyong Motors strike in Pyeongtaek, South Korea (near Seoul), is
now in its eighth week, and the situation of the strikers is increasingly

Loren Goldner

July 17

(The following article reports "just the facts", based on communications
from workers and other activists involved in the struggle.)

The Ssangyong Motors strike in Pyeongtaek, South Korea (near Seoul), is
now in its eighth week, and the situation of the strikers is increasingly

To briefly reiterate the overall situation (following on my earlier report
of June 19):

Ssangyong Motors is 51% owned by China's Shanghai Automotive Industry
Corporation. In February the company filed for bankruptcy, proposing a
restructuring and offering the Pyeongtaek plant as collateral for further
loans to re-emerge from bankruptcy. The court approved the bankruptcy
plan, pending adequate layoffs to make the company profitable again.

Following job actions through the spring in anticipation of the layoffs,
the current strike began on May 27 when the company announced layoffs and
forced retirement of 1700 out of 7000 workers, with immediate additional
firings of 300 casuals. The workers slated for layoff immediately occupied
the plant, demanding no layoffs, no casualization and no outsourcing. The
KMWU (Korean Metal Workers Union) supported the occupation but tried to
channel negations strictly around the question of layoffs.

As of mid-June, about 1000 workers were continuing the occupation, with
wives and families providing food. The government and the company bided
their time, in part because of a broader political crisis of the
hard-right Lee government which militated against any immediate massive
police and thug attack, But two weeks later, they felt confident to go on
the offensive. The workers, for their part, had armed themselves with iron
crowbars and Molotov cocktails.

On June 26th-27th a serious government and employer attack began , as
hired thugs, scabs recruited from the workers not slated for firing, and
riot police tried to enter the factory. They secured the main building
after violent fighting in which many people were injured. The occupying
workers retreated to the paint sector, which was part of a defensive plan
based on the belief that police would not fire tear gas canisters into the
highly flammable area. (In January, five people in Seoul died in another
fire set off during a confrontation with police, sparking weeks of

The following day, the company issued a statement to the effect that there
had been enough violence, but in reality in recognition of the tenacious
worker resistance, and police and thugs were withdrawn. The company urged
the government to involve itself directly in negations. All water in the
plant was nonetheless cut off at the end of June.

Following a court order, the forces of repression struck again on July 11
as the riot police moved to seize the factory area with the exception of
the paint sector, and encircled the entire factory.

Ever since the attack of the 26th-27th attack aimed at isolating
Ssangyong's struggle and breaking the strike, solidarity actions outside
the plant were attempting to build broader support. These included a
street campaign, mainly from family organizations in the center of Seoul
and Pyeongtaek areas, a 4-hour general strike by the KMWU during which
metal workers from nearby plants rallied in front of Ssangyong factory
gate; on July 4th , and July 11 the KCTU (Korean Confederation of Trade
Unions) held nationwide labor rallies in support of the Ssangyong's
struggle. These actions were however poorly attended and the leadership of
the KMWU has hesitated in declaring an all-out strike in response to the
attacks on the plant. Activists think the KMWU and KCTU leaderships are
more preoccupied with upcoming union elections. (927 activists also held a
one –day hunger strike in the center of Seoul on July 11.) (From my
experience in Korea over
the past four years, these are largely ritual actions which rarely
influence the outcome of a struggle.)

Finally, on July 16, 3,000 KMWU members gathered to support the Ssangyong
strike in front of the Pyeongtaek City Hall. When they tried to move to
the factory after the rally, they were blocked by police and 82 workers
were arrested on the spot.

All in all, chances for a serious generalization of the struggle to other
factories look remote. Activists on the scene feel that even if the KMWU
called a general strike, only a few districts would follow it. The Hyundai
auto workers are in the midst of wage negotiations themselves. Nearby
supplier plants have already gone through structural adjustment and are
not likely to mobilize.

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