Letter from South Korea

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Kyung-nok Chun reports on how a strike by rail workers shook the country's rightwing president and altered the political landscape.

The 23-day strike by the South Korean railway union that ended on 31 December was by far the most serious challenge to Park Geun-hye, whose election as president a year ago sowed horror among many worker activists and the left.

The strike was the lightning rod for the anger of everyone disgusted by Park - the former dictator's daughter. It was a battle fought on behalf of the entire working class. And though the outcome fell short of a victory, it left in its wake fertile ground for future struggles to develop.

The issue that set off the longest rail strike in Korean history was the government's plan to sell off the railway. As a preliminary step towards privatisation, the government announced it would establish a subsidiary of the state-run rail operator Korail to run part of the high-speed train services.

The plan had been germinating long before Park came to office, but rail privatisation was to be a test of her resolve to "reform" the public sector.

Seeing the attack coming, the railway union, with some 900 civic groups, had campaigned for over a year, collecting over a million signatures and scoring important small victories against tentative moves towards privatisation.

When it emerged late in 2013 that the government intended to set up the Korail subsidiary the rail union voted to strike by an 89.2 percent majority.

The union leadership went to great pains to avoid an illegal strike, toning down the level of action at the last minute from an all-out strike to one that left nearly half of its members keeping trains running at a minimum required frequency which is mandatory under the notorious "essential public services" clause of the Korean labour law.

The walkout began on 9 December. The government promptly declared the strike illegal. It also heaped lie upon lie on the strikers - that the government had no plans to privatise the railway, that rail workers were "unionised aristocrats", that Korail was infested with inefficiency, etc. None of it worked.

The strike drew support from huge sections of society. Opinion polls indicated that the strike had the overwhelming support of people in their 20s and 30s, that the majority believed the union not the government over privatisation, and that more than 60 percent opposed public sector privatisations.

The strike sent Park's approval ratings crashing down to 30 percent from as high as 60 percent. In a fantastic display of solidarity, the truck drivers' union refused to transport shipments that could not be handled by the 30 percent of freight trains running.

A hand-written statement of support for the rail workers by a university student unleashed a social phenomenon where anyone with any grievance about the state under Park took to posting similar statements in public places.

People who had watched the deterioration of democracy with helpless frustration, the breaking of welfare-related election promises, the witch-hunts against "North Korea followers", brazen attempts to cover up the involvement of state security agencies in electoral politics and attacks on union rights suddenly discovered a potent force capable of derailing Park's onslaught.

The government reacted with unprecedented ferocity. More than 4,000 strikers were immediately dismissed and criminal charges brought against 194 strike leaders.

On the second day of the walkout the board of Korail unanimously decided to set up the envisioned subsidiary. In the face of such provocation, the most effective response by the union would have been to escalate to an all-out strike.

Alas, the union leadership chose to stick to a "legal" strike. The government, however, was all too willing to escalate. It penalised 4,000 more strikers, made huge damages claims against the union, raided union offices and brought in untrained strikebreakers, causing disastrous safety incidents that ended in a fatality.

Park raised the stakes to an new level when, on 22 December, police stormed the headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), Korea's main union federation, in a bid to arrest railway union leaders suspected of hiding there.

After nearly 24 hours of siege warfare in which police arrested hundreds of union activists, the invaders had to return empty handed - the union leaders had already escaped.

The government thus earned itself not just public ridicule, but the full rage of the entire organised working class.

In the face of this open declaration of war, surely the moment was ripe for an all-out strike? The rail union leaders did not escalate.

As for KCTU, it responded with a call for a "general strike" on 28 December. The only problem was that was a Saturday, and the purported general strike turned out to be a day of protest.

But it was a magnificent one at that - a hundred thousand workers and sympathetisers rallied in the bitter cold, dwarfing the heavy police presence. But a strike it wasn't. What little token strike action the KCTU was willing to put together was planned for 9 January - leaving the rail workers to fight on their own for another ten days.

Perhaps sensing the reluctance of the KCTU leadership to build serious solidarity action, the government upped the ante even further in the days leading up to the rally - announcing a plan to hire new Korail staff to replace strikers, issuing a business permit for the new subsidiary the night before the rally and issuing an ultimatum to strikers to return to work or else face sackings.

The ultimatum was ignored - nearly 80 percent of strikers stayed out, and were beginning to put a real dent in the running of passenger trains. But with the government so utterly determined not to give an inch of ground, perhaps now, at last, was the time for the union to take the fight to the next level?

Alas, the leadership refused to escalate and lurched into desperate pleas for negotiation even as the government's attacks became more vicious.

In the end, the leaders felt compelled to accept a compromise brokered by the ruling party and the main opposition Democratic Party to set up a parliamentary sub-committee to discuss the future of the railway - essentially a promise of talks that promised nothing. The membership was never consulted and so the rail workers returned to work on 31 December, without even the usual promise of minimising victimisations.

Clearly this was a disappointing outcome for many who rooted for the union's victory. But neither did it hand Park the Thatcherite victory she had dreamed of.

That a public sector strike could rally the public's support was itself a humiliating blow to Park's legitimacy. Moreover, the strikers returned to work with their fighting spirit intact, ready to fight subsequent rounds of privatisation that will inevitably follow.

Victimisation attempts are already meeting defiant protests, with workers refusing to sign individual return to work pledges and stopping work in defence of colleagues threatened with sackings. Round two of the rail workers' struggle has begun.

The strike offered inspiration and hope to millions that it was possible to challenge Park's hard right government.

The fact that the union held out for 23 days on its own against overwhelming odds is a repudiation of the myth about the complacency of well organised workers in large workplaces. It also starkly revealed the power of organised labour to spearhead popular resistance.

Although Park had faced other movements that undermined her legitimacy before, notably the demonstrations that raged all summer after revelations about the meddling of the national spy agency in the presidential election that brought her to power, none had so thoroughly rattled the regime as the rail strike.

In the heat of battle, the government had to delay its offensive or make partial compromises by abandoning its plan to privatise gas.

The anti-privatisation consensus that emerged during the strike is now finding expression in a growing movement to stop plans to privatise healthcare.

Marvellously, the health workers' union declared it will pick up where the rail workers left off.

A nationwide campaign by teachers and students to stop the adoption of a right wing history textbook glorifying Park's father ended in a victory.

Could the strike have achieved more? What precluded such a possibility was the self-limiting tactics of the KCTU and rail union leaders.

This tendency, a fundamental feature of the trade union bureaucracy, becomes even more pronounced in times of intensifying social and economic crises, when the leaders come under heightened pressure to avoid extreme confrontations.

Overcoming their conservatism requires the rank and file of the union to exert pressure through their own militancy and initiative, acting independently of the leadership if necessary.

The potential was certainly there. Although the confidence of the rank and file wasn't anywhere near the level of acting independently of the leadership, there was a significant minority of members and branch leaders arguing for an all-out strike at every turn of the struggle.

Even many of those left behind to run "essential" passenger train services expressed their readiness to walk out the moment the leadership issued the order. Some branches even took bold initiatives to block strikebreakers.

But generalising such initiatives was not easy once the strike began without the participation of "essential service" staff and without a rallying point at which the geographically scattered branches could all come together.

Had rank and file militants been organised in a network capable of putting forward proposals to escalate the fight in a more coordinated fashion, they would have been able to exert real pressure on the leadership at crucial moments of the struggle.