South Korea’s right-wing government, led by president Yoon Suk-yeol, has been increasing attacks on workers’ rights and unions in recent months. The government has been anti-worker and anti-union since it took power last May, with President Yoon frequently emphasizing that his administration would “strictly respond to any illegal [labor] activities. But these traits have become blatant since successfully repressing truck drivers’ second strike last November to December, which demanded the expansion of a standard-fare system that means a minimum wage for ostensibly self-employed truck drivers. The right-wing government’s relentless attacks have made building a powerful general strike an urgent task for workers.
The Right-Wing Government’s Attacks on Workers’ Rights and Unions
In December, the government announced its intention to introduce a reactionary labor reform, including a measure to allow extending the working hours a week. According to the current labor law, the work week can’t exceed 40 hours. But if there is an agreement between the employee and employer, the work week can extend to 52 hours with 12 hours of overtime. And the law allows a flexible work system within six months, in which the work week can extend to 52 hours, 64 hours when overtime is added, in a specific week given that the average work week doesn’t exceed 40 hours in the whole period.
This government plans to extend the work week cap in a new flexible work system. According to a draft bill announced on March 6, employees can be forced to work up to 64 or even 80.5 hours if 11 consecutive hours of break time between work days are provided. The government plans to submit its draft bill to the National Assembly this summer, while the center-right Democratic Party, which makes up the majority of parliament as the former ruling party, has not agreed on the plan.
On top of that, this government has been attacking unions. The government is forcing them to make their finances public, especially to the capitalist government and audit specialists. This demand is based on a vague clause in the labor law about the government’s supervisory right of unions in a very crucial situation, which hadn’t been used for a long time by previous governments.
There are two different types of unions in South Korea. The KCTU, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, was built in 1995 through the national unity of democratic unions, which mainly had been constructed based on each company as a result of the 1987 Great Struggle, which was a militant, volcanic strike wave composed of more than 3,000 illegal strikes with 1.2 million participants within three months. Despite its bureaucratization, the KCTU still has some basic features as a democratic union. Fiscal transparency is one of them. The finances of the KCTU and its affiliated unions have been transparently shared with their members. But this is not the case for the FKTU, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, which has been made up of totally bureaucratized unions, filled with bureaucratic corruption since 1946. Given this situation, this government is utilizing the corruption of the FKTU to attack all unions, mainly the KCTU. Against the intention of the government to undermine the fiscal independence of unions, the KCTU and its affiliated unions are rejecting the demand to submit their financial records to the authority.
The government is also eagerly trying to demonize and repress the KCWU, the Korean Construction Workers’ Union. The KCWU is an affiliate of the KCTU and organizes around 80,000 workers in the construction sector, usually working under extremely unstable and dangerous working conditions. The KCWU has been using a tactic to demand construction companies hire a certain proportion of union members and the union has managed to make construction sites safer through its more than 20 years of struggles. However, this government defines KCWU’s demands as illegal threats and compares its struggles to the violence of gangster organizations. President Yoon called the KCWU “gangsters in the construction sector” and ordered his government to eradicate the union from the construction sector on February 21. Against that, the KCWU held a national rally in Seoul with the KCTU, with more than 40,000 participants, on February 28.
The government’s attack focuses on KCWU first for two reasons. Firstly, it seems to be a retaliation against the union, which most eagerly tried to organize a solidarity strike during the truck drivers’ strike in December. Secondly, it may be a preemptive measure to cope with a foreseeable situation where many construction companies go bankrupt due to declining housing prices with interest rate hikes, making the workers shoulder the capitalist crisis without their union.
The government has also repressed the KCTU and its affiliated unions using the notorious National Security Law (NSL). On January 18, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and police forcibly searched the offices of the KCTU and its affiliated union KHMU, the Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union, based on a search and confiscation warrant for the alleged breach of the NSL by some union cadres. And on February 23, they searched the offices of the Gyeong-Nam chapter and Daewoo shipbuilding subcontracted workers’ branch of the KMWU, the Korean Metal Workers’ Union, which is affiliated with KCTU, likewise using the NSL. Forcible searches of the KCTU and its affiliates are the first since 2015. But forcible searches using the NSL by NIS haven’t happened since the 1996-97 powerful general strike against the labor reform and the legal amendment to increase the power of the former NIS.
The Background of the Government’s Attacks
President Yoon managed to be elected mainly thanks to the former government’s failure. The former government, headed by Moon Jae-in, was inaugurated in 2017 with big expectations and hopes of the ordinary people after the huge protests against Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye, which led to her impeachment. Moon’s administration painted itself as progressive, but it clearly served the interests of the capitalist class. A significant increase in the minimum wage had been one of Moon’s main campaign promises, but the total minimum-wage increase during his administration was smaller than during the previous more right-wing governments. This government also reformed the calculation range of the minimum wage, effectively reducing many workers’ real wages.
The Moon government tried to be a mediator between the U.S. and North Korea but did nothing except for just meeting with both sides without any attempt to escape from the United States’ grip, provoking North Korea’s furious and aggressive responses. As soaring housing prices hit ordinary people hard, Moon’s administration announced dozens of measures against realty speculation but always failed to contain housing prices because the measures were too trivial. The failure to stabilize housing prices decisively triggered the collapse of the government’s strong support.
President Yoon also managed to be elected by inciting and appealing to anti-North Korean and anti-Chinese sentiments and the backlash against the feminist movement. He was elected with the smallest margin in the history of Korean presidential elections, and his party accounts for only a third of the National Assembly. To overcome such vulnerabilities, as a former prosecutor general, he has been utilizing direct or indirect threats based on prosecutors’ punishment power against political rivals.
He has also been trying to mobilize strong support from right-wing forces by, for example, strengthening the military alliance between U.S. imperialism and South Korea. And it announced a measure to exonerate Japanese companies from their historical responsibility for forced labor during Japanese imperial domination of the Korean Peninsula on March 6. This move to effectively excuse war crimes was immediately praised not only by Japan but also by the U.S. and even the EU as a step toward building solid relationships between allies. A series of blatant attacks on workers’ rights and unions are also aimed at mobilizing strong support from right-wing forces and especially the capitalist class, which needs more intensification of exploitation, given that Korean and global capitalism is heading into a deepening crisis.
Building a Powerful General Strike Is Urgent!
Yoon’s right-wing government’s attacks have angered many workers. The KCTU already passed a resolution for a two-week general strike in early July at its national representative assembly on February 7. But given that the government continues to accelerate its attacks, July would be too late for the workers to counterattack. The KCTU should build a strong general strike as soon as possible with urgent demands that include stopping the reactionary labor reform, fighting the repression against the unions, and reducing the working hours to 30 hours a week, redistributing all jobs to all workers, including the unemployed and underemployed. The KCTU must also demand abolishing the National Security Law, rightful reparations from Japanese companies for forced labor during the colonial occupation, and nationalizing energy companies for energy price control and climate justice.
To achieve this, militant workers and revolutionary activists should organize active campaigns from below to call for building a strong general strike as soon as possible. Given that the bureaucratized leaders of the KCTU are reluctant to confront the government head on, the only way to realize a powerful general strike is by mobilizing the anger of ordinary workers and turning it into a strong desire toward a counterattack..
Overcoming narrow trade unionism is very important for building a strong general strike. In recent months, the president’s approval rating has tended to go up every time his administration steps up its attacks on the unions. That’s not only because right-wing forces are mobilized but also because a not-so-small portion of ordinary workers are swayed by the government’s propaganda because of their bad feelings about the unions. As of 2021, the unionization rate of workers in South Korea was 14.2 percent.The figure was 46.3 percent in workplaces with 300 or more workers, but it was only 0.2 percent in workplaces with less than 30 workers, where about 60 percent of the total workforce is employed.
However, for the past 20 years, most unions’ approach to this situation has been narrow trade unionism, in which unions focus only on the interests of their own members, seriously widening the gap in wages, working conditions, and job security between regular workers in big companies and other workers. This wide gap allows the government’s anti-union campaign to reach ordinary workers. Therefore, overcoming narrow trade unionism and restoring class-struggle unionism, which regards workers’ unions as weapons of the working class in its struggle against the capitalist class and was a strong tendency in the democratic unions for ten years after 1987, is crucial to the success of the workers’ counterattack.
Therefore, in order to make this general strike a decisive turning point, the demands for vulnerable workers should be raised first, such as raising the minimum wage by 30 percent, recognizing the rights of both subcontracted and so-called self-employed or platform workers to negotiate with and strike against their real employer, and extending the prohibition of reparation for damages due to strike from legal strikes to all strikes. Making such demands become all unions’ demands is also the task for militant workers and revolutionary activists to realize through assertive activities from below.
Workers in South Korea have a historical tradition of strengthening their movement by organizing strong counterattacks against governments’ harsh repressions. This was the way to build and defend the regional and national unity of democratic unions after the 1987 Great Struggle. This can also be the case at this moment. In particular, organizing a strong counterattack this year can help revive the workers’ movement, which has been weakened in recent years by the illusion of the nature of the former government and the restrictions of COVID-19. In other respects, given that most of the older generation of the 1987 Great Struggle has been retiring, this struggle can be a good opportunity for the largely organized new union members since 2016, who make up about 36 percent of the KCTU’s 1.1 million members, to organize a huge struggle and grow as a new protagonist of the Korean workers’ movement. It will be of great significance in preparing the Korean working class for the great struggles and leaps against desperate attacks of the capitalist class in the coming deep capitalist crisis in Korea and worldwide.