April 2--KCTU to Strike Against the Privatisation Agenda
At an emergency session of the National Congress on March 26, the KCTU has called for a general strike to take up the month-long strike by the electricity workers in opposition to the Kim Dae Jung government's privatisation drive.
Source :  Korean Confederation of Trade Unions
At an emergency session of the National Congress on March 26, the KCTU has called for a general strike to take up the month-long strike by the electricity workers in opposition to the Kim Dae Jung government's privatisation drive.
The shape of the solidarity general strike began to emerge immediately after the Congress as each of the KCTU's sectoral affiliates convened emergency meetings to give substance to the National Congress decision.
The teachers' union (Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union - Chunkyojo) led the way by deciding to call out 10,000 teachers to join the strike. Metal workers (Korean Metal Workers Federation), who led the first solidarity general strike on February 26, reaffirmed the decision to down tools in support of the anti-privatisation campaign. Hospital workers and workers in chemical industry also met to develop a concrete and effective strike plan. White-collar workers in securities, insurance and other financial services will also bring the business district to a standstill. The public sector workers, who had initially planned to strike on February 28, will now join the April 2 KCTU solidarity general strike.
The KCTU solidarity general strike, scheduled for the last day before the "final" deadline the government has set for the sacking of more than 4,000 striking electricity workers, will put a finishing touch to the momentous struggle of electricity workers who have single-handedly generated a society-wide re-examination of the government's senseless privatisation drive.
The decision of the KCTU National Congress, made one day after the government and the management of the five power companies began a dismissal procedure against all the workers who are out on strike, is based on an assessment that the government's central (and only) intent in its "handling" of the electricity workers' strike is to destroy the trade union movement and to fence off all "policy"-related issues that affect the workers and society as a whole from the reach of trade union movement agenda and engagement.
The Government Attacks on Workers and the Trade Union Movement
The jingoistic attacks of the Korean government against the striking workers and the trade union movement are led by president Kim Dae Jung himself and his Labour Minister Bang Yong Seok.
President Leads the Attack
President Kim Dae Jung led the charge by declaring the "management" and "policy" related issues to be out of bounds for trade union activity, declaring any effort of the trade unions to influence or change the government policy or management matters illegal. He went on even to declare that such illegal activities do not exist in any advanced countries. He has articulated his perception of what a trade union should or should not do at least on four occasions since the strike by public utilities workers on February 25. On March 19, at a cabinet meeting, he directed his ministers to "resolve the illegal strike as soon as possible" (Hankyereh, March 22).
At the same cabinet meeting, President Kim Dae Jung explained why it is necessary to "privatise" the power industry: "If the power industry continues to make losses, it will, in the end, result in greater burden for the people." On the same day, however, the Korea Electric Power Corporation, in preparation for March 22 Annual General Meeting of Shareholders, announced that it had achieved pure profit of 1.79 billion won and 8.6% increase in sales (totalling 19.8 trillion won) in 2001. The KEPCO's figures encompass the performance of all its subsidiaries, including the 5 power companies whose workers are currently striking. One journalist commented, "either the President was misinformed by some one, or suffered a slip of mind" in his effort to stress the necessity of privatisation.
A major Korean daily noted in its editorial: "It is difficult to comprehend President Kim Dae Jung insisting that deficit and people's burden are the rationale for pushing ahead with privatisation. The privatisation drive, which aims to sell off the public enterprises which are making huge profit to a chaebol or an American investor, itself will become a burden for the people" (Hankyereh, March 22).
President Kim Dae Jung's instruction to "resolve the illegal strike as soon as possible" at the March 19 cabinet meeting led to the announcement the next day of the ultimatum by the management of the five power companies to sack all striking workers who fail to return to work by 9 a.m. March 25. Two days before the "deadline" set by the government-management, President's Prime Minister spelled out the government intentions: "The members of trade union who fail to report for work by 9 a.m. March 25, set as the final date for return to work, will, however large the number, be sacked. This is the categorical position of the government."
The Labour Minister Turns Labour Slayer:
'Korean Trade Union Movement is Socialist!'
It was, however, the Labour Minister, Mr. Bang Yong Seok, who volunteered as the "executioner" for the government and the management of the five power companies. While union leaders waited for the government representatives to resume negotiations to settle the dispute, even if it took them into the late hours of the night, the Labour Minister appeared for a press conference 3 p.m. March 24, and declared an end to all negotiations. He repeated the ultimatum that all striking workers who fail to return to work will be sacked.
The Labour Minister had from the very beginning of the current strike ruled that the unions and workers were engaged in illegal action. He volunteered to mediate over issues that concern "working conditions", but ruled out the issues of privatisation as illegitimate concern of the workers and unions. On March 7, at an interview with Reuters news agency, Minister Ban described the power workers strike as "illegal", and declared that there was "absolutely" no possibility for the government to review the privatisation plan. He outlined the government's position: "the union can be forgiven if it repents and recants, but otherwise, the government will uphold the principle to punish the illegal strike."
The attitude and behaviour of the Labour Minister is a deep-rooted one. They are also coloured by his desire to wash out what he would regard as 'tainted' image which may stand in the way of his survival - and jeopardise the chances of success -- in the extremely hostile "power" circles.
In an interview with the Joong-ang Ilbo (March 6), the Labour Minister articulated his understanding of the labour movement in Korea.
"From 1920s to 1940s, it took on a characteristic of nationalist movement. Whatever form of struggle one adopted, it was regarded as patriotic. During the period of military dictatorship since the liberation, it was a democratisation movement. In those days when workers basic rights were not guaranteed, even Molotov cocktails were tolerated. But, with the establishment of the 'government of people', there is nothing that is institutionally blocked. Negotiations and strikes can be undertaken legally. Teachers union and government employees works councils are permitted. Now, the unions need to change. Labour movement should be pure, focusing on improvements in working conditions. And furthermore, it should at all times be remain within the legal boundary. Where in the world do you find [unions] calling for socialism. Class-based, ideologically-inspired struggles, while it may be limited to certain groups, will be eventually outcasted by the people, and will suffer internal divisions."
Mr. Bang Yong Seok, appointed to lead to Ministry of Labour in late January this year, was in the 1970s a trade union leader. In response to the new Minister's statement to "undertake policies with care on the basis of a balanced position to embrace both the business and the labour," a major daily noted it as his "efforts to appease the business leaders who were concerned that he had 'labour' background."
New Minister's efforts to cleanse off his 'labour' image won the approval of the business within less than one month. Dong-A Ilbo, on February 21, just few days before the public utilities workers strike, reported the comments made by the chairperson of Chamber of Commerce and Industry about the hard-working Labour Minister: "Many business leaders were concerned when he said at the time of his appointment that the business had to give more for industrial harmony. However, the general assessment now is that the Minister has acquired a sense of balance."
Labour Minister's view of the trade union gone wrong or "impure" is reflected in his ultimatum speech on March 24: "Trade union movement in its activity should focus on the interest of the people as a whole and the rights and interests of the members, not on ideology."
Before declaring that "There is no more opportunity", the Minister reiterated his opinion on the trade union movement's illegitimate concern and action against privatisation: "The ICFTU mission who visited me on March 19 failed to explain to me how the demand of the power workers union to retract privatisation could be justified. It's because most of the countries are pushing ahead with privatisation." [At the meeting he referred to in his ultimatum speech, Minister's pertinence led to pointing out to the ICFTU mission that the trade union movement in Japan is a living example of how "ideologically" motivated unions fall to demise.]
The Government Rejects Negotiated Settlement
The 'what turned out to be final' session of negotiation between the striking union and the government before the March 25 deadline began with a proposal by the union (assisted by the KPSU - KCTU's public sector affiliate to which the power workers union belongs) to leave out all reference to "privatisation" in an agreement which would focus on the commitment of the government and the management to refrain from retaliatory actions against the union and the members upon the conclusion of the strike.
The negotiation agenda of the striking union was informed by an awareness and confidence that the strike has succeeded in generating a society-wide debate over the issue of privatisation which would force the government to review its plans. It was also felt that the government would not be able to declare openly a reversal or suspension of its plans. The union decided not to press for the government to explicitly state the withdrawal (or retraction) of the privatisation plan.
The negotiation on March 24, however, quickly came to an end when the government negotiators demanded the union to accept the inclusion in the agreement a sentence which expresses union's explicit consent to the privatisation plan.
Following the breakdown of the (what turned out to be) final negotiation, the management of the five power companies announced to the press that "the negotiations have broken down because the union refused to budge from its demand for the withdrawal of the privatisation plan." The walk out by the government negotiators was followed by the final declaration of the ultimatum by the Labour Minister at 3 p.m.
A Ministry of Labour spokesperson explained the reason for the government's abrupt demand for the inclusion of a reference to privatisation in an agreement with the union after a month-long refusal to entertain any reference to it by the union. "The insistence on the inclusion of an explicit union consent to privatisation and the sale of the power companies stem from the need to wipe out any possible rekindling or spark." According to the unnamed Ministry of Labour official quoted by the Hankyereh, "The principle of the government is to really go out and sack the striking workers, even if the numbers go beyond 4,000."
Riot Police Attacks the Rally of Striking Workers
As the final round of negotiations was in progress, the union called on the striking workers, who were dispersed in the vicinity of Seoul, to gather at Yonsei University in downtown Seoul. The purpose of the regrouping of the striking workers was two-fold. The union leadership wanted to put the possible agreement that might be concluded from the negotiation to the vote of members. On the other hand, if the negotiations were to break down, the leadership wanted the striking workers to reject the March 25 return to work deadline as a collective.
The "game plan" eluded to by the Ministry of Labour, led by the Minister Bang, became reality when, at midnight March 24, more than 6,000 riot police stormed the Yonsei University where more than 2,500 striking workers had gathered to wait for the possible progress in the negotiations. A total of 381 unionists and students were apprehended by the riot police.
The police laid charges against 45 of the captured people. One was a student who fought with the police to prevent the riot police attacks on striking workers. The rest were members of the power workers union. Of the 44 striking workers charged by the police, 4 were ordered to be detained in remand to face the trial, while the rest were released to face trial without being held in jail.
The police handed other arrested workers over to the representatives of the management of the five power companies. The arrested striking workers were forced to sign a statement indicating their willingness to return to work as a condition for the release. In one case, the companies brought 10 coach buses to the Sodaemun Police Station (near the Yonsei University) to receive 144 arrested striking workers from the police. All together 316 arrested striking workers were handed over to the management.
A spokesperson of the Public Prosecutors Office revealed that "all the arrested striking workers who were handed over to the management based on their signed statement to return to work will be prosecuted if they renege on their promise or refuse to report to work."
Other unionists safely moved out of the Yonsei University campus away from the reaches of the riot police. They resumed their "dispersal" mode, returning to their safe housing provided by other KCTU members and activists of other social movement organisations.
The Government is Lying:
A Statement by a National Assembly Representative on the Government Behaviour
Representative Ahn Young-keun, a member of the National Assembly, on March 25, issued a statement denouncing the government for lying about the breakdown in the negotiation. He accused the government of opting for the "worst" scenario by refusing to respond to the union's amended proposal.
Represenative Ahn's statement began by declaring, "The government and the five power companies, in their Statement to the People Concerning the Illegal Strike of the Power Workers Union issued at 10 a.m. March 25, are lying in stating that 'the negotiations have broken down because the union refused to budge from its demand for the withdrawal of the privatisation plan.'"
He explained that he and 25 other members of the National Assembly had been working to mediate between the union and the government. Their work began on March 18 when they presented a "recommendation for normalisation of the power industry" to both the union and the government.
The recommendation called on the government, the power companies, and the union to "concur in the recognition of the need to build sufficient consensus among people on the issue of privatisation of the power plants." It went on to call on the National Assembly to hold hearings and debates on the issue with the participation of the stakeholders and experts, including the holding of special session of the relevant standing committee, to arrive at a national consensus. The bipartisan group of National Assembly representatives called on the government to respect the discussion process by the National Assembly, and the union to end the strike and return to work. Lastly, the National Assembly Representatives called on the employers to "minimise civil and criminal legal actions against the returned workers following the end to the strike," and urged the government, the power companies, and the unions to work together for the development of the power industry.
Representative Ahn revealed that the union was willing to suspend the demand for the withdrawal of the privatisation plan and end the strike to return to work if a public space could be created to arrive at a society-wide consensus on the issue. The government, however, refused to accept the bipartisan recommendation.
Representative Ahn explained that it was the bipartisan National Assembly group which had suggested to the leadership of the union and the government "to mutually refrain from making any reference at all to the issue of privatisation to arrive at an agreement on the minimisation of civil and criminal legal action and disciplinary against the striking workers as a condition to end the strike and return to work." He felt the 'before the deadline' negotiations would focus on this to arrive at an agreement. He revealed that the Minister of Commerce, Industry, and Energy had confided in him that the government was willing to issued a signed commitment to undertake efforts to minimise disciplinary action and civil and criminal legal action against the striking workers as an adjunct to an agreement between the management and the union.
The bipartisan National Assembly group was shocked when at 3 p.m. March 24 the Labour Minister held an unscheduled press conference to announce unilaterally the breakdown and the end of negotiations. The sudden announcement nullified all the work the bipartisan group had done to persuade the both side to adopt a course towards a negotiated settlement of the strike.
The shock was greater because the government negotiators brought up a new demand to the union to state its explicit consent to the privatisation plan, after all the work the bipartisan group had done to avoid any reference to the issue.
Representative Ahn denounced the government for going on a warpath "to destroy the union using the possible electricity blackout and the people's discomfort and anger as a hostage".
The government's inexorable march towards mass sacking, refusing to accept the amended proposal of the union, led a major daily newspaper to run a scathing editorial.
"We state that the responsibility for at least the current situation surrounding the issue of privatisation of the power industry lies with the government. The union has stepped back from its original demand for the "withdrawal" of the privatisation plan to accept the proposal to leave the issue to public consensus process. It has accepted the various mediation proposals produced by eminent persons group and various academic groups. But, the government has turned a deaf ear to all these efforts for mediation. Faced with the appeal of the Labour Minister exhorting the union president to 'make the decision to save the union members', we cannot but suspect that the real intention of the government is in extracting an unconditional surrender from the union.
The government has repeated at every opportunity that the issue of privatisation is founded on an agreement at the National Assembly. This, however, is not a reasonable statement. We are forced to ask, Does the government think that no law can be amended? If the government still claims to be the "government of people", we urge it to undertake an opinion poll and to open itself to unconditional debate." (Hankyereh, March 25, 2002)
Soon after the deadline for return to work had passed, the Minister for Commerce, Industry, and Energy met with the chief priest of the Myongdong Cathedral to request him to request the police to remove the leaders of the striking workers from the Cathedral compound. The Cathedral leaders refused the suggestion by Minister Shin Kook Hwan.
Minister Shin returned to the Cathedral in the evening of March 26 with the Minister for Government Administration and Home Affairs and the Commissioner General of the National Police Agency to request the Cathedral's approval of the entry of the riot police to apprehend the leaders of the strike. The chief priest of the Cathedral refused the government's request and stated that riot police could not on any account enter the premises and grounds of the Cathedral.
The KCTU Solidarity General Strike
The emergency National Congress decided on a general strike to begin at 1 p.m. April 2. The key demands of the strike are
* Stop the sale of the power plants and the privatisation of the public utilities;
* Stop the repression of trade union activities, especially targeted at the power workers union and the government employees union.
The Congress also resolved to strike immediately before April 2 if the government proceeds with mass sacking of the striking workers or send riot police to crackdown on the leaders camped at the Myongdong Cathedral. The Congress decided to obtain a mandate to negotiate on behalf of the striking power workers union to begin negotiations with the government. The Congress called on the affiliated federations to communicate with all member unions to begin the process for organising the general strike.
In the run up to the solidarity general strike, KCTU units will organise rallies and demonstrations in their regions, leading up to the nationally coordinated "People's Rally" on March 30.
Organising for the solidarity general strike is gaining momentum with various unit unions (at enterprise level) of a number of KCTU's sectoral affiliates announcing the plans for the strike. A number of communication company based unions and various manual workers unions at municipal services have already declared the decision to join in the KCTU general strike. The Hyundai Motors Workers Union and Ssangyong Motors Workers Union have joined the national metalworkers union for the April 2 action. Workers at major hospitals will strike on the designated day while at some other hospitals workers will hold emergency delegates conference and general members assembly. Similar action is being prepared by white-collar office workers unions. Teachers union will bring out the union representatives and officers in all schools where the union's chapter has been organised for the solidarity general strike. The remaining union members will organise a special class on the issue of privatisation on the strike day.
While not all of the 600,000 members of the KCTU will be able to join in the solidarity general strike, the April 2 action is expected to be larger in numbers than the February 26 effort. Regardless of the size of the general strike, the KCTU decision to call for solidarity general strike is already creating seismic rumblings in the Korean society and the current situation over the issue of public utilities privatisation.
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