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Workers Vanguard No. 1084

26 February 2016

South Korea

Down With Anti-Labor Offensive!

Amid a sluggish economy and the sharpest drop in exports since 2009, the right-wing South Korean government of President Park Geun-hye has launched a major offensive to roll back hard-fought gains of the militant union movement. A series of so-called “labor reform” laws and “guidelines” aims to squeeze from the workers more profits for the chaebol—the big conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai that dominate the South Korean economy—and their imperialist financiers. A campaign of repression is targeting in particular the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), one of two major union federations. The KCTU has waged several strikes against the proposed legislation and organized mass rallies in Seoul last November 14 and December 5. In retaliation, Park’s cops raided KCTU offices and jailed its president, Han Sang-gyun, after besieging a Buddhist temple where he had taken refuge.

The proposed laws would greatly expand the use of “irregular”—temporary, part-time and contract—labor. Such workers, who already comprise at least one-third of the workforce, do not receive the benefits that full-time permanent employees do, are paid a fraction of the wages and can easily be fired. In February 2015, company plans to convert regular to irregular employees prompted one tire factory worker to burn himself to death in protest.

A new labor guideline announced by the government last month allows companies to lay off workers for poor “job performance.” This supposed reform tears up the existing seniority-based system and makes it easier to implement speedup and purge those workers who resist. Another allows companies to unilaterally change employment rules and drastically cut wages of older workers by instituting what is called the peak-wage system. More guidelines to come will permit restructuring, layoffs and outsourcing without union consent. Park has embraced the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement that has decimated the country’s farmers and reinforced South Korea as a bulwark of the U.S. alliance against China (see “U.S.-South Korea Trade Pact Targets China, Korean Workers,” WV No. 1008, 14 September 2012). Now she is pushing membership in Washington’s anti-China Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which will deepen imperialist domination of South Korea.

The KCTU emerged from the Great Labor Struggle of 1987. Mass industrial unions were forged through that struggle in the teeth of a brutal police state and over the opposition of the anti-Communist Korean Federation of Trade Unions (KFTU). Mass strikes—banned under the dictatorship installed by South Korea’s U.S. overlords—led to pitched battles with police and won key economic gains and union recognition. This class-struggle explosion caused the capitalist rulers to abandon direct military dictatorship and set up a thin facade of parliamentary democracy.

Park seeks to turn the clock back to the 1970s, when she was acting first lady to her father, the late dictator Park Chung-hee. In addition to demanding more coercive state powers through “anti-terrorist” and anti-Communist legislation, she is campaigning to replace current school history textbooks with state-issued ones that will no doubt whitewash her father’s brutal reign. When more than 21,000 teachers condemned Park’s textbook plan last October, the government threatened to fire 22 members of the Korea Teachers and Education Workers’ Union (KTU). Some 16,000 then endorsed a second statement denouncing the plan. A court recently upheld an earlier edict by Park declaring the KTU illegal, a decision the union is appealing. Drop the ban on the KTU!

At least 80,000 workers, students, teachers and others turned out on November 14 to protest both the anti-labor drive and Park’s push to rewrite history. The state responded with typically brutal repression. Demonstrators were blasted by water cannons and tear-gassed. The cops injured dozens, including a 69-year-old farmer who was sent into a coma. On December 5, 30,000 demonstrated in Seoul against the crackdown and the anti-labor campaign. Since then, there have been other actions, including protest strikes by tens of thousands. Park’s imposition of the new guidelines in January prompted the KFTU to withdraw from talks with the government and employers and announce a turn to “full conflict mode.”

Following the November 14 rally, police raided the offices of eight unions and seized computer files and documents. Later, 14 members of the Korean Federation of Construction Industry Trade Unions were arrested. In January, prosecutors filed charges against KCTU president Han for organizing “illegal” rallies, and outrageously for “inflicting injuries to 90 police officers and damaging 52 police buses” (Korea Herald, 5 January) when the cops assaulted the November protest. Prosecutors declined for the moment to file the far more serious charge of “sedition,” but they left open the possibility of filing that charge in the future. Free Han Sang-gyun and all the arrested protesters and unionists! Drop all the charges!

Trade unions in Japan and Australia have expressed solidarity with their South Korean brothers and sisters, including by sending delegations to the country and visiting jailed unionists. It is crucial that the working class internationally, especially in the imperialist centers of Japan and the U.S., bring their collective power to bear in defense of the Korean labor movement. The U.S. proletariat has a special obligation to do so. The American ruling class was the godfather of every bloodstained South Korean dictator and continues to maintain some 28,000 troops in the country. These troops are aimed not only at China and North Korea, deformed workers states where capitalist rule was overthrown, but also at the South Korean proletariat. We demand the removal of all U.S. bases and troops from South Korea, as part of the struggle to mobilize the U.S. working class against its “own” rulers.

The South Korean police state is a direct result of the division of the Korean nation along class lines, frozen since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. In that conflict, the U.S. imperialists attempted to drown in blood the social revolution that had brought the Stalinist Kim Il Sung regime to power in the North. Korean workers and peasants, aided by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, repulsed this counterrevolutionary attack. The Korean bourgeoisie, with the U.S. and Japanese imperialists behind them, looks to restore capitalist exploitation to North Korea. It also uses anti-Communism as a club against the South Korean workers movement. When the current government’s justice minister declared that an announced indefinite KCTU strike against the anti-labor laws would be “illegal,” he ominously cited “a situation when the public’s safety is under threat by North Korea’s nuclear test and terrorism” (Kyunghyang Shinmun, 25 January). Anti-Communism is also wielded against opposition parties. In 2014, Park had a left-nationalist party, the Unified Progressive Party, disbanded for supposedly pro-North Korean activities. Its five National Assembly members were stripped of their seats, and a central leader, Lee Seok-ki, was framed up and sentenced to nine years in prison.

As Marxists, we stand for the unconditional military defense of the North Korean deformed workers state—as well as the deformed workers states of China, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam—against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution. At the same time, we fight for proletarian political revolutions to oust the parasitic, nationalist Stalinist bureaucracies. Our defense of the workers states includes supporting North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and effective delivery systems as a necessary defense and deterrent against the imperialists.

Despite the numerous hard-fought battles and exemplary courage of the South Korean workers, the KCTU has lost considerable ground since the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, when the IMF dictated an austerity drive on behalf of the imperialists as a condition for bailing out the chaebol. The KCTU leaders had backed the election of the bourgeois liberal Kim Dae-jung, whose government repaid them by crushing a massive labor upsurge in order to enforce the IMF’s diktat.

Kim’s political descendants are the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (now called the Minjoo Party). Yet it is to these enemies of the workers that the KCTU’s Han appealed in a statement preceding his arrest in December, asking them: “Is it so difficult to decide if you are going to side with the chaebols and capital or side with the workers?” Despite posing as friends of workers, Minjoo is a capitalist party that represents the interests of the bourgeoisie no less than does Park’s Saenuri party.

South Korea demonstrates that even the most militant union struggle alone cannot free the workers from their exploiters. The KCTU is hobbled by the populist-nationalist politics of its leadership, which seeks alliances with a supposedly progressive or patriotic wing of the bourgeoisie such as Kim Dae-jung or Minjoo. As with Kim, the results prove that this is a dead end. Such alliances and the nationalist ideology behind them prevent the workers’ heroic struggles from being directed against capitalist class rule. For this purpose the working class needs a party that remains completely independent of the capitalists and leads the way to socialist revolution. Such a Leninist-Trotskyist party would be based on proletarian internationalism and would be a section of a reforged Fourth International. It would seek to link revolutionary struggle in South Korea to political revolution in the North and in China, and crucially to the overthrow of capitalist rule in the imperialist heartlands of Japan and the U.S.


Workers Vanguard No. 1084

WV 1084

26 February 2016


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South Korea

Down With Anti-Labor Offensive!