•  HOME 
  •  BOOKS 
  •  WWP 
  •  DONATE 
  • Loading

Follow workers.org on
Twitter Facebook iGoogle

Korean workers show the way

Auto plant occupation enters third month

Published Jul 24, 2009 7:19 PM

SsangYong Motor is not exactly a household name, even among autoworkers here. Smaller than Hyundai, Kia and GM-Daewoo, this Korean auto firm only produces vehicles for the domestic market. Members of the United Auto Workers, however, need to pay close attention to a fierce battle taking place at a SsangYong plant in Pyeongtaek, South Korea.

In February SsangYong—in which the privately owned Shanghai Automobile Industry Corporation holds a 51 percent stake—declared bankruptcy. The courts approved a restructuring plan that put up the Pyeongtaek plant as collateral so SsangYong could obtain new financing and come out of bankruptcy quickly. The backing of the court was contingent, however, on SsangYong imposing layoffs and involuntary retirements on 1,700 out of 7,000 employees and immediately discharging 300 “casual” workers. This is on top of the 1,700 jobs cut since the SAIC takeover three years ago.

Thousands of workers, members of the
Korean Federation of Trade Unions, rally in
Seoul July 4 in support of SsangYong workers.

At first the situation bore a remarkable similarity to GM and Chrysler’s restructuring-by-bankruptcy, but on May 27 the Korean Metal Workers Union took the struggle in a very different direction. The KMWU members did not choose the path of concessions and retreat. After a series of sporadic strikes beginning in April, the 1,700 workers who were going to be laid off occupied the plant, bringing vehicle production to a standstill.

The workers raised three main demands: no layoffs, job security for all and no outsourcing. For the first few weeks they faced little in the way of a counterattack. The rightist government of Lee Myong Bak was distracted by his own political crisis and mass anti-government demonstrations of up to a million people.

Striking workers occupy
auto plant.

On June 16 the company held an anti-strike demonstration of about 1,500 scabs, all but a few hundred of whom were supervisors. Despite the workers’ occupation, the scabs had been inside maintaining machinery but had been unable to restart production. Around 750 workers from nearby plants, including the Kia works, came out for a pro-strike counterdemonstration called by mass text messaging by KMWU.

Knowing that eventually the company and the state would try to evict them, the occupiers began stockpiling pipes, crow bars and Molotov cocktails. On June 26 the anticipated attack came as riot police, scabs and hired thugs entered the plant. In accordance with a prearranged plan, workers retreated to the paint shop. They knew the company would not risk the property damage that would ensue if the highly flammable chemicals were ignited in that area.

The next day the invaders retreated, the official reason being that enough violence had occurred.

In an effort to gain public sympathy, SsangYong management sent aerial photos to the news media taken July 1 as leaflets were distributed urging the strikers to evacuate. Photos showed no workers leaving, but did show piles of tires on the roof, apparently intended to be hurled to the ground and set ablaze if police stormed the plant. Alongside the tires were boxes of bolts allegedly to be fired by slingshot.

On July 11 the police surrounded the plant, with 100 cops at each of four gates. Police took control of much of the plant as workers again regrouped in the paint shop.

On July 16 the KMWU held a solidarity rally of 3,000 outside the Pyeongtaek City Hall. When the protesters attempted to march on the plant, they were blocked by police. The cops arrested 82 marchers.

As of July 19 there were still 1,000 courageous workers inside the plant. Their families continue to keep them well fed. There is a high level of organization, with about 60 different squads that each elected a delegate to the coordinating body of the strike.

This occupation takes place in the context of a general upsurge in the class struggle in U.S-occupied South Korea, but it is the first action of this kind in Korea in quite some time. It follows recent sit-downs in Chicago, Canada and Ireland.

The Korean autoworkers are fighting a hard fight and need the support of workers all over the world. Messages of solidarity can be emailed to the KMWU at [email protected]