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South Korea: Ssangyong workers occupy plant, win partial victory -- Class war in midst of economic crisis

Ssangyong worker is greeted by family member at the conclusion of the occupation, August 6, 2009.

[See also South Korea: Graphic photos, video -- Ssangyong sit-in workers' appeal: `Our lives are at stake'.]

By Young-su Won

August 6, 2009 -- After days of harsh and inhumane assaults by riot police and company thugs on striking workers occupying the Ssangyong Motor plant in Pyeongtaek, near Seoul, the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU) and management reached an agreement: the union accepted part of the company’s redundancy proposal, saving about half the strikers’ jobs, while the rest will apply for voluntary retirement or unpaid long-term leave, or accept another job with the spin-off company.

Union leader Han Sang-gyun apologised to the striking comrades for not being able to block the Ssangyong’s whole redundancy plan. He solemnly said the scars of the struggle will not be easily forgotten.

The strikers, including union leaders, were arrested by the police. More than 100 workers are expected to be put to a trial.

However, the Ssangyong workers have done their best during the 77-day occupation. Though a full-scale victory has not been achieved, these heroic working-class warriors deserve the homage of workers across the globe.

On August 5, ``battle of Ssangyong’’ entered its final stage. That morning, thousands of riot police, along with fully-equipped police special forces, as well as pro-company thugs, began a wholesale attack on striking workers. In the air three police helicopters are dropped tear gas-filled balloons, and on the ground riot police encircled every plant that the workers had occupied, attacking workers with water cannons laced with tear gas.

A full-scale war has been unleashed on the strikers. It was been 76 days since the start of the strike, and 18 days since the riot police began its full-scale attacks, with a truce during negotiations on July 30-31. In that period, management and hired goons blocked the supply of water for more than two weeks, and after the breakdown of talks, the electricity was cut off. As a result, the strikers were driven into hunger and thirst.

Background – takeover to bankruptcy

When the impact of the global financial crisis heavily hit the South Korean economy, the immediate victims were workers. All over the country a harsh wave of redundancies swept workplaces and factories, driving many workers out of their jobs. In response, workers began to fight for their jobs and livelihoods.

In Pyeongtaek, 50 kilometres to the south of Seoul, Ssangyong went bankrupt again, after previous bankruptcies in 1998 and 2004. Eventually, after the bankruptcy of Daewoo, which had taken over Ssangyong earlier, the automaker was taken over by Shanghai Motors in 2004. However, in early January, after years of mismanagement, the company yet again filed for bankruptcy.

Workers were furious with management, especially at Shanghai Motors because workers had opposed the takeover by an auto firm that was both smaller and more backward in its technology. The Shanghai management did not keep its promise of large investments in Ssangyong, but instead transferred the more advanced technology to its headquarters in China. Workers were also livid with the South Korean government because it knew the dynamics of the farcical situation and did nothing but to stand by and watch the crisis unfold.

However, all the burdens created by management’s poor policies were transferred onto the workers. The so-called “solution” held up by the management was further restructuring of the company, including mass sacking of 2656 workers from the 7500 workforce.

New militant leadership

The Ssangyong workers’ union, under a new militant union leadership elected on December 5, 2008, immediately rejected management’s plan.

Historically, the Ssangyong Motors Branch, affiliated with Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU), was one of the KMWU’s weakest branches, compared with more militant branches in other auto companies such as Hyundai and Kia. Though the union belonged to the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Union's affiliated metalworkers' union, the Ssangyong workers’ union had been dominated by corrupt pro-management leaderships that preferred the “dialogues” to strikes and industrial struggles.

However, as the economic crisis approached, the rank and file united to save their jobs. Workers felt the need for a strong leadership that could fight the hostile management and the government. This was an important turning point of the workers’ struggle.

From partial strike to occupation

In early April, when management proposed to dismiss 2646 workers, Ssangyong KMWU initiated the lengthy struggle. On May 8, the company reported its plan of dismissal to the local labour ministry office. In protest, the union struck the company headquarters. In this period, the union went on partial strikes on several occasions.

In the meantime, management proposed the voluntary retirement program to divide workers. Under duress, as many as 1700 workers out of 5000 production-line workers applied for early retirement. Among them were pro-management foremen and pro-company union delegates. However, management insisted on the dismissal of remaining employees.

On May 9, three union leaders began the indefinite sit-in on the top of the high-rise chimney, in the middle of the plant. These leaders maintained the sit-in for more than two months.

Finally, on May 21, the union declared the occupation of the plant and an indefinite strike. Thousands of the trade unionists joined the strike and occupied the entire plant in Pyeongtaek. In face of the sudden takeover the plant, the managers were blocked from entering the plant. It also gained a lot of support from political groups, other unions, social movements and community groups, who joined the struggle, staying in the plant with the workers until the police blockade on began June 26.

Family Support Committee

Early on May 13, wives of striking workers began to organise themselves in support of workers’ strike. At first, wives and children were shocked at the company’s attack on workers, and were at a loss as what to do. Many of families were hit hard as less than half of their monthly wage was being earned as a result of the partial strikes.

Soon, as workers were ready to strike, some wives decided to join the struggle. They distributed leaflets and joined the union rallies, not as individuals, but as an organised group. They joined the protests with unionists, especially mobilising the community’s support.

From the beginning of the occupation, wives and children joined evening rallies in support of the workers’ struggle. In the course of the activities of the Family Support Committee, these women played key role of spreading the strikers’ message to the public.

KMWU and KCTU

Most national trade union leaders have visited the plant, expressing their support for the occupation. On June 19 and 20, the KMWU mobilised unionists for a demonstration in Seoul, in protest at the South Korean government’s anti-worker policies.

However, the labour movement has been quite demobilised and fragmented in recent years. Thus, while the KCTU interim leadership rhetorically emphasised solidarity with the Ssangyong workers, in reality the KCTU’s capacity to lead a national struggle has been greatly weakened. The present KCTU leadership replaced the former leadership after it was forced to resign as a result of a sexual harassment scandal involving a KCTU official. That crisis escalated with efforts by some KCTU leaders to cover up the scandal.

Thus, the striking workers had a very low expectation of the KCTU being able to provide systematic organisational support, such as industry-wide or regional strikes, not to mention a national general strike.

Everyday routine of the occupation

The occupying workers organised like an army. As the government and management regarded the occupation as being illegal, at any moment a police attack was highly probable. In a seemingly peaceful but tense situation, striking workers organised in defence squads, lived together, ate together and held rallies together.

Furthermore, in preparation of a possible attack, workers trained themselves in morning and afternoon sessions. At the same time, the workers conducted democratic discussion meetings in order to share information on the situation and the process of negotiations, on the union’s plan for the struggle, and so on.

In daily evening rallies, labour singers, dancers and entertainers held performance to show solidarity with strikers. Workers and their families, who also joined the rallies, and had the chance to read out letters and their own statements.

War begins

As the occupation went on, management began to implement its plan of taking back the plant by force. Ssangyong hired so-called ``security’’ thugs and mobilised workers who were not on the list for redundancy list, with threats that they too would lose their jobs if the did not join the attacks. First they encircled the plant and blocked the entrance gates, with the help of thousands of riot police. From early July, the occupation was physically isolated.

On July 22, riot police and management thugs invaded various parts of the plants in the face of the strikers’ resistance. As the management took back some buildings, including the headquarters office, the plant was divided into company-controlled buildings and those under occupation by the workers. The workers’ control and occupation of paint shops, full of inflammable materials, was a strategic advantage for the strikers.

During late July, the battle continued each day, inside and around the plant. Though the workers were armed with steel pipes, Molotov cocktails and slingshots, they were overwhelmed by the enormous physical force of the police and company thugs. Everyday, police helicopters were hovering in order to pour tear gas-laced liquid on the workers who were on the roof of the plant. The toxic chemicals injured many workers. Company goons indiscriminately fired slingshots with large iron bolts toward the strikers.

Under such unfavourable conditions, with no power and water, the workers survived on rice balls. In the face of brutal attack, the workers were disciplined and well organised for daily combat.

Solidarity struggle

As the full-scale attack was unleashed, the KCTU mobilised support and political groups and social movements rallied in front of the plant. They tried to deliver water and medicine, but management blocked any kind of assistance, with the police standing by.

On July 25 and 29, the KCTU held national workers’ rallies in support of the Ssangyong workers. But the solidarity marches to the Ssangyong plant were blocked by riot police, and in the course of the confrontation – including air assaults by police helicopters combined with a ground attacks with water cannons -- scores of workers were arrested and injured.

However, the encampment of the Family Support Committee and other movement groups kept attempting to deliver water and medicine, and continued to hold rallies, press conferences and candlelight vigils. Hundreds of workers and activists spent their annual holidays at the solidarity camp in front of the plant.

On August 5, however, company thugs forcefully cleared the sit-in tents, and violently attacked workers’ families and other solidarity activists.

Final offensive follows deceptive `dialogue’

Under growing pressure from the community and public opinion, Ssangyong management began a dialogue on July 30 and 31. However, management had just one option in mind: the union’s unconditional surrender and acceptance of the redundancies. It was unacceptable for the union and the talks broke down.

As soon as dialogue was stopped, the company cut the power supply for the plants on August 2 and issued a final ultimatum. From August 3, the company began its final offensive in cooperation with riot police. In the course of the battles, hired goons used slingshots under the protection of riot police shields.

On August 3 and 4, the combined police-thug attack strengthened and the massive August 5 attack took back most of the plant, except the paint-shop building. In the course of attack, three workers fell from the roof and were seriously injured, and a dozen of workers were arrested. The police special forces used extreme violence, including taser (electric shock) guns and rubber bullets. The remaining strikers were isolated in the paint shop.

Ssangyong workers have won the struggle!

Under the dark cloud of the economic crisis, all the burdens of Ssangyong’s managerial failure were shouldered by the workers. Without resistance, workers -- especially casual workers, female and migrant workers are easy targets and can be victimised. Ssangyong workers rose up to fight back against redundancies.

For more than two months, they occupied the plant, combating the combined force of the police, management and hired goons. The broad solidarity from their families, other workers, social movement activists and religious communities demonstrated the legitimacy of their struggle. The battles in Ssangyong Motors were a proxy war between labour and capital.

Though the Ssangyong workers might have not been able to win all their demands under the bombardment of sheer brute force, they have won a victory. Management, refusing to recognise workers as human, wanted to prove the uselessness of workers’ struggle, but the Ssangyong workers exposed the naked truth through their heroic struggle. This time, we may have lost a battle, but, ultimately, the working class will win the war!

[Young-su Won, a member of the Preparing Group for a Socialist Workers’ Party in South Korea. For more pictures and news from South Korea, visit Media Chungchung www.cmedia.or.kr. This is a draft version and may contain errors and may be revised.]

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