Jan. 23  2020
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5,000 Hospital Workers Strike in Solidarity

Today, 5,000 hospital workers in some 150 hospitals throughout the country took to the streets in solidarity strike.

Today, 5,000 hospital workers in some 150 hospitals throughout the country took to the streets in solidarity strike.

This is the first ever sector wide general strike for hospital workers in Korea. The hospital workers' general strike stem from the extreme repression of trade union activities perpetrated by the Korean government. At the same time, it is aimed at mobilising support and solidarity for the striking workers of the Catholic hospitals who have been on strike for 147 days.

Repression that Fuels the General Strike

In the course of this year's round of collective agreement and wage negotiations, a total of 20 unionists have been put to jail, 37 issued with warrant of arrest, 361 subjected to legal action by the management, 190 dismissed, and 1,048 referred to disciplinary proceedings. The Korean Health and Medical Workers Union has been sued for damage compensation of 3.4 billion won and its union dues amounting to 7.7 billion has been frozen by court order at the request of the hospital management. In the case of Catholic Medical Centre, which operates three St. Mary's Hospitals in greater Seoul, the management approved the entry of 3,000 riot police to drag out striking workers.

The repression of trade union activities has been inseparable part of industrial relations in Korea. The Korean Health and Medical Workers Union, on May 23, called out its members in hospitals where negotiations have deadlocked for a simultaneous strike. The Union kicked off this year's negotiations on March 19 on the basis of a set of common demands and issues accompanied by hospital specific demands. Negotiations started in 136 negotiating units (hospitals). In the course of the negotiations, the Union filed for mandatory (non-binding) mediation at 91 hospitals.

The System that Instigates Illegal Strikes

All industrial disputes are required to undergo pre-industrial action mediation by Labour Relations Commission. In hospitals, which are categorised as "essential public services", disputes can be referred to "arbitration" at the discretion of the Labour Relations Commission if negotiation and mediation fail. Once a dispute is referred to "arbitration", industrial action is prohibited and the arbitration award is binding, and the collective agreement negotiation is deemed to have been concluded.

The KHMWU set May 23 as the date for simultaneous strike for those bargaining units where negotiations were deadlocked. A total of 46 negotiating units have concluded negotiations arriving at agreements before (or without going into) strike. On May 23, hospital workers in 44 hospitals (bargaining units) joined the simultaneous strike organised by the KHMWU. The Labour Relations Commission referred disputes in 41 hospitals to "arbitration" just prior to the date of scheduled simultaneous strike, making the strikes illegal.

But, Why Disputes in Catholic Hospitals So Drawn Out - Only Father Knows!

Negotiations in all but 9 hospitals were concluded within 10 days of the strike. Of June 17 (on the 26th day of the strike), strikes were continuing in 8 hospitals. Of this, 5 hospitals are run by the Catholic Church.

On the 147th of the strike, disputes in Kangnam St. Mary's Hospital, Yoido St. Mary's Hospital, Uijongbu St. Mary's Hospital (hospitals belonging to the Catholic Medical Centre run by the Seoul Archdiocese of the Catholic Church), Mokpo Catholic Hospital (run by the Kwangju Archdiocese together with 2 other (non-Catholic) hospitals remain unresolved.

The hospital workers who have joined in the general strike called by the KHMWU took to streets for demonstration in major cities throughout the country. In Seoul, some 2,000 hospital workers gathered for a mass rally in downtown Jongmyo Park and a march to the Myongdong Cathedral where striking workers of the Catholic hospitals are maintaining a supplicating sit-in with 16 of them in 22nd day of hunger strike.

28 Catholic hospital workers began hunger strike on September 25 calling on the Seoul Archdiocese headed by Archbishop Nicolau Jeong Jin-seok (who is also the Chairperson of the Catholic Medical Centre Board of Governors) to intercede in the drawn out dispute. 12 hunger strikers were forced to end their fast at the advise of the doctors. Cha Soo-ryun, the president of the Korean Health and Medical Workers Union who joined the Catholic hospital workers hunger strike ended her fast on October 13 the advice of the doctors and the appeal of the Vatican's ambassador to Korea.

Demands in Solidarity Strike and the Future Action

The KHMWU's general strike today calls for an end to repression of trade union activities, abolition of the "compulsory arbitration" system, thorough investigation of extreme unfair labour practices, special labour inspection, withdrawal of riot police barricading hospitals, and dialogue to end the on-going dispute.

The general strike will be followed on October 17 and 18 by special KCTU national rally, picketing of all Catholic cathedrals on October 20 (Sunday), and departure of special appeal mission to the Vatican on October 21. The KHMWU plans to organise a second general strike in November if disputes are not resolved.

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BASE21 News Desk

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