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쏻e will live together and die together!(interview with striking electric workers)

**This is an interview with a group of striking electricity rank-and-file workers who have scattered around the country in small groups (what has come to be called the 쁲catter struggle) to avoid crackdown by the police. PICIS translated and summarised the original interview in Korean implemented by Chamsesang (Jinbonet) News**

Source  :  PICIS

Photo copyleft by BASE21 PatchA

By PatchA ( / Translated by PICIS,

On March 8, Chamsesang News interviewed electricity workers who were 12 days into their anti-privatization strike. This small group of workers was staying together in a small condo in Seoul. While there was a definite sense of nervousness among the workers when I first entered the room, this was soon replaced by a relaxed and comfortable feeling. Drying laundry was spread out on a partition on one side of the room. While I would have expected a small condo shared by a group of men to be in disarray, I was surprised to find the room perfectly clean and tidy.

When asked whether it was OK for their names to be made public, union member Lee Sok-Hwan replied that his name had already been aired on a radio program that morning, and that it was no big deal. “We’re not slandering the company, and we’re not doing anything wrong, so it shouldn’t be a problem,” he said. He had already done a live interview on a public radio program. As a result of this experience, he seemed a little more comfortable being interviewed than the other workers. A worker next to him lessened the tension by joking, “if I’m going to be interviewed, I’d better say something good.”

Noodles Twice a Day
“Unlike other groups of workers who are typically living together in groups of 13, we’ve got only 5 staying here at the present, so we’re really not uncomfortable. We’re doing our best to trust and take care of one another, to create a comfortable living situation. Actually, a lot of other groups are having a difficult time because of conflicts over basic living issues. You know, I want to eat this, he wants to eat that. I want to sleep here, he wants to sleep there, and that sort of thing,” explained Lee. These sorts of daily-life issues were of considerable significance to these workers.

“These days, we eat twice a day, to save money. We can’t cook real soup, so we just eat noodles. And we decided to do all our cooking collectively. We gave kimchi stew a try, but it came out terribly. From now on, we’ll have to give our wives a hand in the kitchen, so we can learn how to cook.” The other workers smiled at this. These workers say that they’ve each spent about 300,000 Won (approx. US $230) over the past 15 days. With the 5 of them, this comes to 1.5 million Won, hardly a small amount.

When asked where they stayed before the condo, one worker replied that they had stayed in a cheap motel in Seoul, as well as in the Kanghwa area, before finding their present condo. “We looked everywhere to find the cheapest possible place to stay,” one worker said, and added that another group of workers was staying deep inside a mountain.

Workers Have Worked with Pride and Dignity!
When asked whether they were having a difficult time, one worker replied that, “We all hope that this struggle will end as quickly as possible. When the drivers and the guys handling equipment go back to work, they’re going to have to deal with all the work that’s piled up during this time. The announcement of the suspension of negotiations was really unfortunate,” this worker said wistfully. In fact, these workers have always taken a lot of pride in their work. “I’ve been working at the power plant for 10 years, and I’ve never once felt that our operations were inefficient or needed to be sold. We’ve even received the internationally recognized Edison Prize for excellence, and the management team has always gotten top marks in government evaluations. We’ve always taken a great deal of pride in our work,” he said.

Gradually the conversation began to turn to the issue of the government’s attempts to privatize electric power plants. As one worker explained, “Electrical power is a public service. The equipment is incredibly expensive, and electrical power must be provided, even if it is done so at a loss. It’s possible for the provision of electrical power not to generate any profits whatsoever. It’s as a result of this fact that our industry is criticized to be inefficient. But take, for example, a place way up in the mountains. It costs a fortune to supply electricity to that kind of place, and you’re not going to get any profit from it. But people there need to be able to get electricity at the same price as everyone else. It’s this sort of thing that allows privatizers to characterize us as ‘inefficient.’” And another worker added, “It’s possible for it to take 20 years to recover your money from building an electrical power plant. They take 5 years to build, and then it’d probably be 15 years before the investment paid off. I really don’t think that sort of long-term investment is well-suited to private enterprise,” he said forcefully. “The privatization has got to be stopped. We’re committed to following the directions of the leaders of the union, and are anticipating a prolonged ‘scatter struggle’. We’re even thinking of getting part-time jobs to support ourselves through the struggle.”

Group Discussions for a Strong Fight
The workers talked about their commitment to holding group discussions to improve the effectiveness of their ‘scatter struggle’ strategy. “The leaders told us to hold group discussions. We’ve discussed the struggles of our family members, news from other groups of striking workers, as well as the need for the common sharing of information. The purpose of the discussions is to keep us united, fighting as a group, so that we’re not isolated as individual units.” When asked whether there was anything he particularly remembered from the discussions, Lee replied, “Our group isn’t a particularly articulate bunch, so there’s nothing specific I remember. The groups that have been diligent about the discussions say they’re investigating effective strategies for the ‘scatter struggle’. The ‘Five Tactics of Struggle,’ finding a cheap room, the decision to take part-time jobs, and so on.” There was laughter at the mention of the last topic of discussion, but whether or not it was a joke, the commitment of these workers to waging a strong fight was clear.

The Central Role of Cell Phones and the Internet in this Struggle
At the mention of the that the use of information technology seems to be playing a central role in these workers fight, one worker remarked that “Cell phones and our homepage have had a critical role to play in our ‘scatter struggle’. If you go onto our homepage, all the news from the other workers’ groups is posted there”, saying that he felt they were providing a new model for the labor movement. He added that, “The government and the company must be thinking that in order to isolate us, they’ve got to get rid of our homepage.” Indeed, the workers were almost faced with disaster on March 5th, when they were ordered to shut down their homepage. “When we heard on March 5th that the homepage was being shut down, we thought it was the end. But we immediately began using our cell phones to stay in touch with the other groups, and it wasn’t a big problem,” the worker said, calmly recounting how they had dealt with the experience. Throughout the interview, I was truly surprised that in spite of the fact that this was the first mass strike of electrical workers in their 50 years of history, they showed no signs of disunity whatsoever, and answered my questions directly and with confidence.

Throughout the interview, the workers received phone calls from other groups of workers who had scattered around the country. The workers never lost their sense of caution while talking on the phone. They were reminded of the orders from the union leaders and the first question they asked each other was always whether or not everyone was healthy, how everyone was doing. “Are you alright? How is everyone? Well, we’ve just gotta hang in there a little bit longer. We all got questioned by the cops. But they sent us through. In times like this, we really need to stick together. I heard you guys have been having a tough time. You’ve been doing a great job. Take care of yourselves. Let’s talk again soon.”

“We Also Definitely Want to Avoid a Blackout”
When asked to give their thoughts on the recent reports of a possibility of a power outage as a result of the strike, one worker explained that, “While one aspect of electric supply is quantitative, the quality of electrical power is just as important. The quality and quantity of electrical power have to be in sync. When you’re talking about quality, you’re talking about frequency. For example, 60 hertz is the norm, but in the case of a textile plant, if the frequency isn’t consistent, fine thread will come out all lumpy. If there’s a shortage of electrical power, the use of voltage will have to be regulated. But most average citizens don’t know this,” he said, emphasizing the precariousness of the current situation. In the current situation, he added, temporary blackouts were possible.

“If there’s a blackout, and the temporary power-outage lasts for longer than a very short time, the whole country will be in very dire straits. If there’s a power failure in one place, it’s possible for the power to go out all over the country. That’s because the entire country is connected like one big network. The government knows that, and they’re very worried about it. And we also absolutely don’t want that sort of catastrophe,” this worker said with a worried look on his face. “The problem is that this reality isn’t reported truthfully to the public,” he added, expressing a deep distrust in the integrity of the mass media.

Failure is the Mother of Success
In December 2000, the workers experienced the failure to start a strike against privatization when the former union leader signed an agreement with the government. The experience dug into the hearts of the workers. “We had gone to the verge of starting a strike. At that time also, we went on a ‘scatter struggle’, though it was only for a short while. I think that failure was a good lesson. Some people outside said we gave away a great opportunity”, said Lee sorely. “At first, I thought this struggle won’t last more than a week. But although the struggle has been prolonged, looking at this situation where there have not been any workers who’ve gone back to work. I think this comes from the organizing tactics of the power plant union leaders and the KCTU, as well as our past experiences. If the struggle in December was just half of what it is now, the privatization-related act wouldn’t have been passed.” I could feel the will to go on with the strikes and win in every single of their words..

Questioning by the Police at Kangwha Hotel
On March 5th, the workers were questioned by the police. Four policemen, accompanied by the receptionist, knocked on the door around 9:00pm and began questioning them. “We were staying at Kanghwa Family Hotel. And we asked them, ‘Why are you questioning us?’ And they told us they were questioning us because of the strike. They wrote down our names and our ID numbers and checked our fingerprints. There wasn’t any big problem, and we got through it without much difficulty. It seems like the receptionist was suspicious of us, and called the police.” After this incident, the group immediately left the Kanghwa area.

Live and Die Together: A Fight to the End
Union president Lee Ho-dong often tells the members, “Losing is possible, but surrender is never an option.” The members believe deeply in these words. As one worker put it, “In this situation, we are simply trusting and following our president. Everyone feels the same way about this. If there are too many rowers, your boat will wind up in the mountains. If there are too many ‘geniuses’ in an organization, the group will soon be divided into separate camps. If the president gives an order, do it. If he tells us to charge, we charge. We members have absolute confidence in the president, and we follow his lead.” This is exactly what it will take to win this fight. The workers relation with the union leaders was one of comraderie and complete trust. “If we lose here, and only the union leadership winds up getting hurt, our union will have lost all meaning. The leaders aren’t fighting for themselves, they’re fighting and suffering for the sake of the whole union. If we’re going to get hurt, we’ve all got to get hurt together. That’s how everybody in the union feels.”

During our three-hour interview, I was struck by the workers strong determination to fight to the end if their demands weren’t met. Although with the exception of union member Lee Sok-hwan, most workers occasionally showed signs of nervousness or discomfort, they all gave resolute answers to all of my questions. What is the reason behind these workers ability to engage in such a determined struggle? It is because they are together with their brothers, and because of the support of their families. More than anything, it’s because of the clear purpose of the strike: to block the privatization of electrical power in Korea.

March 11, 2002

2002 / -0 / 3-
Labor | Science & ICT | Society | Human Rights
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