Korean autoworkers wage courageous resistance

These Hyundai workers have occupied utility pylons at their plant for almost a year, protesting layoffs. www.industrialunion.org

These Hyundai workers have occupied utility pylons at their plant for almost a year, protesting layoffs. www.industrialunion.org

Since the global recession began in 2008, the world’s auto companies have been aggressively restructuring the process by which vehicles are made.

This has meant the lowering of wages, with multiple categories of workers doing similar labor for dissimilar pay and benefits. The restructuring has also meant the expansion of temporary — also known as “contract,” “dispatch,” “irregular” and, in the international labor movement, “precarious” — work.

Autoworkers around the world have been resisting the restructuring. This is especially true in south Korea.

Under south Korean law, contract workers are supposed to be made regular after two years of service. Hyundai Motor has ignored the law. The only exceptions have been individuals who won court orders to have their status changed. Of the 8,000 temporary workers at Hyundai, 1,900 have sued over the company’s illegal employment practices.

On Oct. 17, 2012, two Hyundai workers scaled an electrical pylon to protest the company’s illegal refusal to make the 8,000 temporary workers permanent. They are still up there.

One of the two occupiers was Choi Byeong-seung, 36, a member of the Hyundai Motor Irregular Workers’ Union, affiliated to IndustriALL Global Union through the Korean Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU). Choi was fired in 2005 from his position as an in-house subcontractor employee. The other occupier, Cheon Ui-bong, 31, is secretary general of the Hyundai Motor Irregular Workers’ local.

In February 2012, Choi had won a court ruling affirming that his firing as a subcontractor was illegal because he had worked in the plant for over two years. In March 2013, Hyundai finally offered to reinstate him — if he would end the protest. Choi refused. He and Cheon are committed to staying aloft — one at 45 feet and the other at 60 feet — until there is justice for all of Hyundai’s contract workers.

Last Nov. 20, three Ssangyong autoworkers began a second pylon occupation. On March 13 of this year, one left the aerial protest for health reasons. Still occupying the Ssangyong pylon are Han Sang-gyun, 52, the fired former leader of the Ssangyong Motor chapter of the Korean Metal Workers’ Union, and Bok Gi-seong, 37, senior vice-president of the dispatch workers’ local at Ssangyong.

Ssangyong, a south Korean car company that produces primarily for the domestic market, was occupied for 77 days in 2009. It took a massive police force, employing water cannons and tear gas and dropping burn-causing chemicals from helicopters, to evict the strikers.

Since then, Ssangyong has failed to honor the strike settlement agreement to reinstate a percentage of workers who had been permanently laid off. There is great desperation among the fired workers; 24 have committed suicide.

The occupiers are seeking negotiations between their unions, the company and the government towards restoring the jobs of the laid-off workers, but Ssangyong has refused.

Han, Bok and the two Hyundai occupiers who have now spent over 320 days on the pylon, remain at their perches as courageous symbols of resistance. Mass solidarity rallies and religious ceremonies have been held below the pylons many times since the occupations began.

Workers at GM Korea, formerly Daewoo, have also resisted restructuring. After 13 days of intermittent strategic strikes in July, they won an agreement granting bonuses and promising no layoffs. South Korean autoworkers make 40 percent of all Chevrolet brand vehicles produced in the world.

The GM, Hyundai and Ssangyong workers are part of a general working-class upsurge in south Korea that has seen scores of strikes and occupations — including several other aerial occupations inspired by Choi and Cheon.

In response, the regime of Park Geun-hye, elected president this year, has cracked down on the left. The anti-communist National Security Law is being invoked in an attempt to repress members of progressive organizations engaged in the working-class struggle. The struggle, however, shows no signs of letting up.