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Sit-down strikers evicted, struggles continue

Published Aug 17, 2009 8:02 PM

Since last December when the sit-down at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago drew international attention, workers around the world have been employing that same militant tactic. In early August, police forcibly ended job occupations in three different countries.

On Aug. 4, brutal police-state tactics were utilized to break up the 77-day occupation of Ssangyong Motors in Pyongtaek, South Korea. Several previous assaults failed to get autoworkers to leave the complex. Each time workers retreated to the paint shop, where highly flammable chemicals could explode if an attack were launched.

The strike began May 22 when 1,700 workers, who had just learned of company plans to permanently lay them off, took over several areas of the Ssangyong works. Ssangyong, which filed for bankruptcy three months earlier, announced a restructuring plan that would shed 2,646 jobs—36 percent of the workforce.

By mid-July around 1,600 workers accepted “early retirement” offers of five months’ severance pay, but 1,000 workers remained inside the plant. Despite shortages of food and water—police began blocking deliveries July 20—600 were still inside and on the roof when the police attacked Aug. 4.

As police forced their way past an encampment of supporters, workers resisted with pipes, crowbars, slingshots and Molotov cocktails. Workers fought back as a cargo container full of cops, who were firing water cannons, was lowered onto the roof by helicopter.

Two workers were seriously hurt after falling off the four-story roof while fighting. Altogether at least 100 workers were injured; even many who did not resist the eviction were beaten.

The Korean Metal Workers Union ended the strike, claiming partial victory. Ssangyong management agreed to call back 48 percent of the laid-off workers who declined severance pay after a one-year furlough.

The state is preparing harsh repression against strike leaders and workers who physically defended the plant. Ninety-six union leaders are currently detained, and some could face charges as serious as attempted murder.

Blaming the unions for property damage and injuries during police attacks on “violent” rallies, the Gyeonggi Provincial Police Agency filed a lawsuit equivalent to about $400,000 against Ssangyong union leaders and officials of the KMWU and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. The Agency plans to file a second lawsuit over losses sustained in the final assault. (Korea Times, Aug. 9)

Four workers and a union leader’s spouse died during the struggle, two by suicide. As of this writing, about 30 autoworkers are still refusing to leave the paint shop.

More sit-downs in July

After learning that the Danish firm Vestas was closing shop and eliminating 625 jobs, about 30 workers occupied a plant in Newport on the Isle of Wight in the United Kingdom on July 20. Before taking action, they consulted with Irish and British autoworkers who occupied plants own by Visteon, the former parts division of Ford, earlier this year.

Vestas, a producer of wind turbines, will leave a total of 1,900 workers jobless when it shuts down European operations to focus on business opportunities in North America, South America and Asia. The justification for the Newport closure is that the plant does not make blades for British turbines, yet Vestas declined a grant of $9.88 million and offers of government help for retooling.

Solidarity actions with the Vestas workers took place in many British cities. In London supporters picketed a speech by Department of Energy and Climate Change Minister Joan Ruddock,

demanding the plant be nationalized under workers’ control. Vestas and Ssangyong workers exchanged messages of solidarity.

However, support from the so-called union “Solidarity,” with ties to the fascist British National Party, was turned down. As one sit-downer explained, “They go against a lot of the things people believe in here. We have Polish workers with us. They’re our friends.” (Wikinews, Aug. 2)

On Aug. 7, after Vestas secured a court eviction order, the last six sit-downers came out. While the 18-day occupation has ended, the struggle to stop these cuts in “green jobs” has not. Hundreds are maintaining a solidarity camp outside the plant. A rooftop occupation of another Vestas plant in nearby Cowes, begun Aug. 3, continues.

The sit-downs in Korea and the Isle of Wight were followed by a five-day sit-down at the Thomas Cook travel agency in Dublin. The world-famous agency announced plans to close all its offices in Ireland, ending 77 jobs, even though its profits in 2008 rose by 50 percent. The sit-down strike ended only after 28 workers, most of them women and two of them pregnant, were arrested.

On Aug. 7, the British Broadcasting Corporation voiced the fears of world capitalism: “It is hardly surprising that a growing number of workers see sit-ins as the most direct and effective way of registering their protests. It is likely we should expect more.”