Issue 206 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Letter from South Korea

A South Korean socialist analyses the recent mass strikes

We supported the KCTU (independent trade union federation) leaders' call for strikes. But when they hesitated and vacillated before the strikes, we criticised them and urged them to act. The Commission to Reform the Industrial Relations was like the Samuel Commission in the 1926 General Srike in Britain. Kim Young Sam, the South Korean president, used it to buy time. This was proved when the ruling New Korea Party (NKP) got its MPs to pass the Labour Law at a pre-dawn session of parliament. Our warning, that the NKP would attempt to rush the bill through by surprise, was proved correct.

The strikes erupted against the following background. First, there is a world economic crisis, from which South Korean capitalists want to escape by raising their international competitiveness. The South Korean economy went into recession from late 1995. The balance of trade deficit piled up to $20 billion last year alone. And the total foreign debt now amounts to over $100 billion. The KCTU estimates that organised workers' real wages have recorded only a minimal increase. Unemployment has grown.

Second, since the great labour disputes of 1987, South Korean rulers have

been divided between 'hardliners' and 'appeasers' around how to oppress the workers. The 'Kim Young Sam Reform' from the first vacillated between these two policies and has finally come down as hawkish. This has made workers angry.

Third, there have been major industrial struggles since 1994 by rail and underground workers, Korea Telecom workers, and car workers. In 1996 workers in almost all industries won victories. This, together with the political strikes last January, validates Rosa Luxemburg's theory of mass strikes.

At the height of the January strikes as many as 370,000 workers were involved. But not all of them stopped work for the whole day. Half of the strikers walked out of work for just four hours. And from the beginning of the strikes the trade union leaders decided who should stop work and who should not. The 'general strike' was a strike in 'waves'. In most industries and workplaces not all workers walked out. And the union leaders decreed that there should be no picketing. There were daily mass meetings for the first several days, organised and tightly controlled by the union leaders. The union leaders also tried as hard as possible to control the size of the meetings or rallies, ordering the rank and file not to march in the middle of the road or even not to march at all. They split the meetings by regional groups. They endeavoured, sometimes in vain, to stop people on the far left distributing leaflets or papers to rank and file workers.

Workers on strike did not set up strike committees. The strikes were bureaucratic mass strikes, although there was also the possibility of their getting out of the union leaders' control. There was no such thing as the 'coordinating committees' which came into being in some of the districts in Paris during the French hot winter of 1995.

Nevertheless the strikes did enjoy a high level of public support. According to one poll, some 75 percent of the nation thought that it was right to strike. Since even some sections of the new middle class are being threatened by bosses' lay-offs, and since it is evident that Kim Young Sam is turning the clock back by trampling parliamentary democracy in the name of national security, many liberal intellectuals supported the strikes.

Every socialist should welcome this. But we cannot welcome the liberal intellectuals' political leadership over the strikes.

The union leaders formed a popular front-like umbrella organisation with middle class groups. The Pan-national Countermove Committee to Invalidate the Retrogressive Revision of the Labour Law and the National Security Agency Law, together with the union leaders, constantly emphasised, 'This struggle is not one by workers but by all the people.' They were obsessed with public opinion and the constitution. They praised the German trade union IG Metall whose leadership 'knew when to be lenient and when to be tough' at the time of the engineers' strike in 1995. And they portrayed office workers as being 'middle class' and 'respectable'.

The middle class organisations never made a political issue of the contents of the Labour Law but only of the way it had been passed. The opposition, the National Congress for the New Politics, led by Kim Dae Jung is also a capitalist party and is not opposed to worsening working conditions.

The strike had a great impact economically, but more importantly it had an enormous political impact. Workers' political consciousness has been raised. South Korean workers have been dominated by syndicalist ideas. But these strikes were political. Socialists argued during the strikes that economic demands should be combined with the demand for the defeat of the Labour Law. The strike also pulled down Kim Young Sam's popularity. According to one poll, Kim's popularity is just 17 percent. This will contribute to deepening the splits among South Korea's rulers. The internal bickerings within the ruling class will, in turn, encourage workers' fights further.

The strikes also broke the myth that South Korea is the democratic alternative to the North. Revolutionary socialists have always criticised both the Southern and the Northern regimes as basically part of the same world capitalist system. Now the strikes decisively proved that South Korea is no more democratic than the North. So the myth now dominating the left is 'Neither Seoul nor Pyongyang but a Swedish style welfare state'. Together with this the KCTU leadership also talks about the South African COSATU and the Brazilian PT as 'models' which South Korean workers should pursue.

Workers everywhere, including those in South Korea, are pressurised by the ruling classes to be more 'competitive' and more 'flexible' in the name of 'globalisation of capitalism'. Workers on strike defied the rulers' drive towards competition. Kwon Young Gil, leader of the KCTU, announced in a mass meeting that the KCTU leadership had rejected the proposal by the Australian dockers' union that they would black South Korean goods in solidarity with the strikers. But few applauded, although few jeered. Workers are confused in terms of ideas, but in action they are rejecting the capitalists' demands. It is here that revolutionary internationalists should intervene.


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