South Korea: `Just the first round' by `irregular workers' at Hyundai Motors

Hyundai Motors workers' sit-in at Hyundai's plant in Ulsan.

Chris Kim reports on strikes and factory occupations at Hyundai Motor Company in South Korea, which is building solidarity among regular and irregular workers, and among workers internationally.

December 16, 2010 -- Socialist Worker (US) -- "Even a worm will squirm when it is being stepped on" is an old Korean idiom that basically means that even the most powerless creature reacts against an aggressor. However, when such a worm is transformed into a fearful dragon, it will do a lot more than just squirm, to the point that you had better think twice about stepping on it.

That's what happened at one of South Korea's most profitable companies, Hyundai Motors, when the company's irregular workers mobilised with strikes and factory occupations during the middle of November, after decades of being "stepped on". Before we start with that fateful day of November 15, we need to take a look at how it progressed.

Despite having a reputation of combativeness and militancy, South Korean workers have for decades had to struggle with a barrier that has become their major obstacle: the division of the working class between "regular" and "irregular" workers.

This division was exercised through the policy of "labour flexibility", which originated under President Kim Young-sam, and faced major challenges from trade unions. It wasn't until South Korea was hit by the Asian financial crisis during the beginning of Kim Dae-jung's presidency that "labour flexibility" was fully imposed under the 1998 "Dispatching Law", which severely attacked trade unions and the working class as whole.

Irregular and regular workers

Unlike regular workers, irregular workers have no guarantees of job security or promotion, and they only have short-term contracts in which their employers determine their fate. Average irregular workers only make 48 per cent of what regular workers make, which makes them more desirable to South Korean capitalists.

As a result, irregular workers rose to around 52 per cent of the labour force under Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), and increased to about 55 per cent under Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008). With current President Lee Myung-bak, the number of irregular workers has risen to around 70 per cent. Ha Jong-kang, who is the director of Han-ur Labor Issues Investigative Research, stated that 80 per cent of newly employed workers in South Korea currently are irregular workers.

Irregular workers also face greater discrimination and dehumanisation, such as verbal assaults at work. Hyundai Motors for example, distinguishes them from regular workers by providing them different-coloured uniforms. A former member of Hyundai's irregular workers' trade union, Ahn Ki-ho, said in a 2003 interview with South Korea's socialist organisation All Together, "Even commuting buses aren't provided for irregular workers."

This isn't to portray the conditions for South Korean regular workers in a rosier light. In 2004, the US Department of Labor reported that South Koreans work the greatest number of hours compared to workers in Mexico, the US, Britain, France and Netherlands. And the fact that the number of regular workers has decreased over the years indicates that regular workers don't benefit from the discrimination and exploitation of irregular workers.

A survey of Hyundai Motors in 2005 found 82.4 per cent of regular workers agreed with the statement, "I probably will become an irregular worker someday." And this has shaped the struggles of regular workers and their union leaders to prevent them from reaching the undesirable status of irregular workers. This has also led to greater division among workers.


Conservative newspapers such as Chosun Ilbo characterise regular workers as part of a "labour aristocracy" in order to prevent any solidarity with irregular workers. Trade unions for irregular workers were eventually formed, but this also led to a division between two separate union forces.

There have been displays of solidarity for irregular workers from regular workers in struggles since the Asian financial crisis, but solidarity was partial and eventually neglected by the leaders of the regular workers' union. Even in the last five years, there have been some memorable struggles of irregular workers -- strikes of Hyundai Motors' irregular workers in 2005 and 2006 for example -- but they eventually suffered defeats due to fragile solidarity as well as the moderate tendencies of regular workers' union leaders.

But on July 22, 2010, South Korea's Supreme Court ruled that every irregular worker from manufacturing companies -- Hyundai included -- should become regularised after two years of employment. After the ruling, the unionisation of irregular workers has significantly increased in Hyundai factories in Ulsan (south-east South Korea), Chunju (south-west) and Asan (north-west).

According to a pamphlet titled, Hyundai Irregular Workers' Strike: Solidarity Strike Is the Key to Victory, published by South Korea's anti-capitalist newspaper Left21, "1,700 workers have joined trade unions within three months". After the numerous defeats that irregular workers have faced in the past, the Supreme Court ruling boosted workers' confidence once again. However this wasn't the only factor that motivated Hyundai workers' will to fight.

Factory occupation

A couple of days before the factory occupation of Hyundai irregular workers in Ulsan on November 15, there were mass mobilisation of workers, trade unionists, students and other leftist organisations in Seoul united with other international activists against the Group of 20 (G20) summit on November 11 and 12.

And on November 7, there was a National Workers' Rally in preparation for anti-G20 demonstrations where around 40,000 workers gathered in solidarity. There, the chairperson of the Korean Confederation of Trade Union (KCTU), Kim Young-hoon, proposed a "Nationwide Campaign Headquarters" to resolve the problem of irregular workers.

We must also not forget November 13, which was the 40th anniversary of the death of labour martyr Chun Tae-il, who died in 1970 through self-immolation -- an act which caught national attention and helped shine a light onto the harsh reality of labour issues in South Korea.

This week of regular and irregular workers' solidarity was also elevated with previous victories of irregular workers' struggles at Kyrung Electric and Donghui Auto for regularisation of their status prior to the National Workers' Rally. As Moh Seung-hoon from Left21 stated, "The victories of Kyrung Electric and Donghui Auto workers from their tireless struggles that continued for five to six years have fired up workers' confidence."

It was this solidarity and confidence that once again transformed Hyundai workers into "fearful dragons". The subterranean fire of Hyundai's irregular workers finally exploded in front of factory 1 early in the morning of November 15 through a sit-in strike demanding regularisation. The United Auto Workers (UAW) website later reported that irregular workers "at the Hyundai Motor Company in Ulsan, South Korea, have been engaged in a sit-in strike since November 15 when a subcontractor who employed them announced the business was closing and Hyundai was terminating the contract."

All Together's website stated, "Struggles of Hyundai Motor's irregular workers are very legitimate. Even the courts admitted that twice (Supreme Court's decision of July 22 and High Court's decision of November 12), and that demand for regularization of Hyundai Motor's irregular workers are right."

This sit-in strike had escalated into a full occupation of factory 1 in Ulsan (which is Hyundai Motors' main headquarter) when about 500 security guards and company thugs busted in, committing acts of senseless violence. Despite the number of workers who were hospitalised and arrested by security guards and company thugs after their violent attacks, the workers' struggle increased as strike spread to factory 2 of Ulsan, where they were supported by 400 activists from KCTU, the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), the New Progressive Party (NPP) and other progressive organizations assembled outside.

Solidarity increased in the following day, as regular workers also expressed their support while the strike spread to factory 3. Production was completely stopped in factory 1. Sookyung Seo from Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported on November 16, "Hyundai Motor Co., South Korea's biggest carmaker, said a sit-in protest at a factory in the nation stopped the production of 922 vehicles worth 7.9 billion won (US$7 million)."

Sookyung Seo also reported in the same article, "Chang Kyu-ho, a spokesman for Hyundai's regular workers' union, said its members aren't participating in the protest." However, the reality was that delegates from nine division of Hyundai's regular workers' union visited "factory 1" on November 16 to give their support and solidarity, and so did six delegates of regular workers from factory 4.

Also, nearly 500 regular workers were among those assembled near "factory 1". During his interview with Left21, Park Sung-lak, who is a delegate for regular workers in factory 1, stated that the "current struggle of irregular workers is a struggle of regular workers as well, and it's important to understand the need for us all to unite and struggle together."

Strikes spread

Strikes at Hyundai Motors factories also spread to Chunju and Asan. Hyundai management in Asan has typically been very repressive, and even workers' assemblies are difficult to organise.

Some of the irregular workers' union leaders were hospitalised for broken ribs and vertebrae as a result of beatings from security guards and company thugs. But that didn't stop irregular workers' will to fight, as they went out on strike. However, the factory was never occupied in Asan despite numerous efforts made by workers.

Chunju also displayed strong solidarity between regular and irregular workers, where they were able to forcibly push security guards away as they occupied a factory. And on November 17, Hyundai workers also proposed a joint statement of solidarity between regular and irregular workers, which became known as "beautiful solidarity".

They declared that "solidarity struggles of regular-irregular workers will burn like a flame" and that they "will put life and death on the line, organise the workplace and stand as vanguard of struggles". They even hung a huge red sign that stated "We Workers Are One!", which was a statement made recently by a dedicated labour activist, Lee So-sun, who is also the mother of labour martyr Chun Tae-il. It became a new slogan for "beautiful solidarity".

Even though solidarity from below was increasing and escalating among rank-and-file workers in Ulsan, Chunju and Asan, by November 20 there were some strong obstacles as well. Hyundai Motors had fully revealed its barbarity, as the violence of security guards and company thugs increased and as Hyundai Motors blocked any food supply and heating to factory 1.

Some workers were kidnapped, beaten and turned over to police. On November 30, 32 irregular workers were arrested after they were brutally assaulted by about 300 security personnel and company thugs. In the same incident, five workers from factory 2 were assaulted and arrested inside the factory restaurant while they were having lunch.

The latest violent act was attempted by Hyundai Motors on December 4 at 7.30 am when management organised about 2000 security guards and 100 company thugs, along with a giant excavator. The excavator headed toward factory 1 and started to destroy the windows of the second and third floors of a building.

As South Korea's progressive media website Redian reported:

Hyundai union leader Lee Kyong-hoon and cadres of the Executive Committee ran onto the scene after they heard reports about the situation, but they were utterly rejected by the company when they requested them to stop the assault. Cadres ran and pushed security guards away as they blocked the excavator in front of "factory 1," while one threw a rock at driver's window. The excavator's attack finally stopped at 8:35 a.m.

Redian continued, "Ten windows were broken from the company's attack. Company thugs got into a bus and drove away."

Moderate union's `solidarity'

While Hyundai workers displayed strong resiliency against Hyundai Motors' violence, the moderate tendency of the regular workers' union leaders served as a major obstacle. And this started from the very beginning when deputy director of Hyundai Motors chapter Lee Sang-soo visited factory 1 with his "solidarity" but also shared his toned-down moderate statements, such as "but we can't lead the struggles with regular workers' strikes now", "marching forward isn't always continuation of struggles" or "we have to back down when it's needed".

Lee Kyong-hoon, who is a trade union leader of Hyundai regular workers, also took moderate positions at the resolution conference on November 26, when workers showed their support for a solidarity strike of regular-irregular workers. He and other union leaders demanded a delay in the strike and proposed compromises for irregular workers.

And when he was criticised by other workers, he even threatened "to end everything" and stop all food supplies for irregular workers in factory 1. Lee Kyong-hoon also showed his moderate tendencies at a delegates' conference on December 1 and at a meeting the next day where he and other union leaders continuously backed delaying a proposed solidarity strike, and supported negotiating with the company instead.

In other words, when there was a chance of moving the struggle forward with a solidarity strike, union leaders took the position of being "neutral in a moving train", in the words of the late activist and historian Howard Zinn.

Such moderate actions by union leaders aroused criticism from workers at Hyundai Motor and elsewhere, as well as from other activists who have consistently supported solidarity strikes. This inaction caused such considerable demoralisation among irregular workers that some workers actually walked out on the strike.

The factory occupation that mobilised around 500 workers on November 15 in Ulsan had decreased in size to about 300 workers by December 6. And after the collaboration of progressive parties like the DLP and NPP (who initially supported the strike) with the Democratic Party and People's Participatory Party on December 7 in a demand for ending the strikes, 50 more workers left the strike by the night of December 8. The Hyundai irregular workers' 25-day strike was laid to rest on December 9.

As brutal as the company's violent assaults were, workers' militancy was unbreakable. As a worker who was hospitalised after he was brutally beaten stated, "I will struggle even as I lay in a hospital bed."

However, what was overwhelming for Hyundai Motors' irregular workers was that the company started making threats against workers' family members, which stirred up negativity between workers who were in the middle of the struggle and their family members at home.

Workers were physically and mentally worn out after struggling for 25 days with no heat while they shared breads and noodles, until even this fragile food supply was eventually blocked as well. They also shared uncomfortable conditions, with each worker sleeping underneath one thin vinyl sheet on the cold floor.

But what really played a significant role in demoralising workers' will to continue their strike was moderate union leaders who prevented the movement from going further from "beautiful solidarity" to solidarity strikes, and the lack of influence of left-wing trade unionists.

Another factor was the collaboration of progressive reformist parties like the DLP and NPP with corporate parties like the Democratic Party and People's Participatory Party in proposing an end to the strike. Chun Ji-yun from Left21 pointed out, "This struggle has shown the possibility and potential of working-class self-emancipation. But it also showed that the union bureaucracy and reformist politicians are obstacles that stand in the way for movement to progress more further."

`Beautiful solidarity'

However, we can't underestimate the accomplishments of this struggle as well. This wasn't simply a struggle of Hyundai Motors' irregular workers, but this was a struggle that attracted solidarity from many irregular workers throughout a country.

An example of solidarity that must not be left out is solidarity from the subcontract workers of Hyundai Kia on December 3 when they signed the joint statement opposing Hyundai Motor's violent oppression and demanding regularisation of Hyundai workers.

This struggle also showed great signs of solidarity between regular and irregular workers like never before in the history of labour movement in South Korea. It displayed class consciousness on a greater scale, in which expressions like "beautiful solidarity" and "We Workers Are One!" were developed despite the fact that the mainstream media tried to downplay this solidarity.

International solidarity was also expressed by Hyundai workers from India, with their statement that said, "Struggles of our comrades aren't simply for irregular workers in Korea, but it is for every worker in Korea and the world."

The same solidarity was also echoed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in front of Hyundai American Technical Center on December 6, where members of the UAW, along with the United Food and Commercial Workers, Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO and others demonstrated against the company's violent repression of irregular workers.

Detroit Symphony Orchestra members, who had been on strike for nine weeks against huge pay cuts and other bad conditions, also joined this demonstration for the regularisation of Hyundai Motor's irregular workers.

Workers' power was fully shown as production was shut down for 25 days. Hyunjoo Jin from Reuters reported, "The strike had cost Hyundai 315 billion won ($277 million) in the lost production as of Thursday morning, causing it to report the worst November sales among Korean automakers."

And it is also important to note that this was the first occupation of Hyundai Motors factories in 12 years. It forced Song Hoi-young, who is editorial director of right-wing newspaper Chosun Ilbo, to admit,"It felt as if I was witnessing the earlier stage of labour movement from late '80s [which was heyday of labour movement in South Korea] when I saw irregular workers united for resistance."

Hyundai Motors' irregular workers surely didn't show any sign of broken spirit when the strike was over. According to Kim Yong-wook from South Korea's leftist website Cham Sesang (or "True World"), one worker stated as he was leaving a factory, "We have a confidence that we can always occupy other factories, despite the fact that we are ending this strike."

Chun Ji-yun from Left21 also reported one worker's statement, "It's not that we haven't gained anything. We have expressed ourselves to the world as loud as we can, and we have shown the world [of capitalists] how frightening irregular workers can be."

These 25 days of struggles have offered an example for other workers in South Korea who witnessed the factories of a country's biggest auto company being shut down and occupied. It's undeniable that this struggle will elevate greater confidence and militant spirits for other irregular workers in South Korea for struggles that are yet to come.

Meanwhile, as "the end of strike brought relief to Hyundai", Kang Sang-min, an analyst at Hanwha Security, stated, there is new struggle blooming from an old seed.

"It was only first round", said one worker. "We don't know how many rounds we have to run, but let's start organising our workplaces starting Monday [December 13] and struggle until we all become regular employees!" This was statement from Conference of Resolution for Irregular Workers' Union, where about 600 Hyundai Motors' irregular workers gathered on December 12.

Female workers also participated. One woman said:

The end of the strike doesn't mean that the fight is over. We have to organise and strike again. They often say that women should back down when there are physical confrontations. But we women can do many other things as well. We are going to discuss how women can organise and participate. Let us all win regularisation by organising more people than there are now!

Another worker said, "True solidarity is only possible when men, women, regular and irregular, workers unite in one."

So while Hyundai Motors is enjoying their "relief", Hyundai Motors' irregular workers are brainstorming and organising to start their "second round". This fight surely isn't over.

[This article first appeared in Socialist Worker (US), newspaper of the International Socialist Organization. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with author Chris Kim's permission]