Academic journal article Development and Society

Worker Militancy at the Margins: Struggles of Non-Regular Workers in South Korea

Academic journal article Development and Society

Worker Militancy at the Margins: Struggles of Non-Regular Workers in South Korea

Article excerpt


[Episode 1] On August 26th, 2013, two Jaeneung Education Workers Union activists came down from the bell tower of Hyewha Cathedral after their 202day aerial protest, as the company and the union agreed to conclude the dispute by reinstating dismissed union members and restoring the existing labor contract. The dispute, which started in December 2007 as the union protested against the company's unilateral wage reduction, is recorded as the longest, lasting 2,076 days. Since March 2014, however, the union has re-launched a street sit-down protest since the company has not accepted the union's core demand for the guarantee of living wages and union activities.

[Episode 2] On August 8th, 2013, two Hyundai Motor Non-regular Workers Union activists stopped their 296-day aerial protest at a transmission tower near the Ulsan auto plants. They demanded that the company follow the Supreme Court's decision and employ all contracted workers as regular workers. In July 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that Hyundai Motor violated the Dispatched Workers Protection Law, requiring the reinstatement of the aggrieved contracted workers to regular status. Their aerial protest, which triggered a number of solidarity campaigns, including the Hope Bus, led by labor-civil society organizations, gained little. In April 2014, tripartite bargaining started, involving HMC management, regular workers and nonregular workers unions, but has not been productive due to inter-union distrust as well as ever-conflicting views between the unions and management.

[Episode 3] On December 30th, 2013, when the company announced sudden closing of its production plant, the Kiryung Electronics Worker Union lost its workplace. In November 2010, the union won the reinstatement of dismissed members after its 1,895-day struggle (2005-2010), including the union president's 94-day hunger strike and aerial protest at the plant tower. The union's struggle attracted a lot of active support from civil society organizations and netizens, and led politicians to pressure the company into accepting the union's demand. The company's plant closing drove the union to re-launch another painful struggle.

The above three episodes offer a glimpse of how non-regular workers in South Korea (hereafter Korea) have fought desperately in the 21st century. Their struggles, which last for hundreds of days and even longer than two thousand days, are targeted at employers' tyrannical behaviors, such as forced wage cuts, unilateral disconnection of employment contracts, discriminatory and illegal employment practices, willful disregard of the court decisions and government directives, and union suppression by violence. Those desperate and protracted struggles are closely related to precarious employment status and insufficient protective institutions given to non-regular workers.

In Korea, political democratization in 1987 triggered the subsequent explosion of "Great Labor Struggles" and massive organizing of democratic labor unions. As a consequence, Korean labor unions became internationally known for their militant activism through the late 1980s and mid-1990s. At the time, they were viewed as building a new front in the global labor movement along with other democratizing countries, such as Brazil, South Africa, and the Philippines (Silver 2003). The 1997 economic crisis, however, changed the contour of labor militancy in Korea. In the pre-1997 period, union militancy was characterized as being on the offensive, in that unions, freed from the authoritarian state's interventionist control, actively resorted to strike action for forging labor citizenship in the workplace and enhancing employment conditions through wage increases. By contrast, the post-1997 period has seen union militancy turn to the defensive in two ways. On one side, the existing unions, comprised of regular workers, have undertaken militant reaction to employers' downsizing and the government's neoliberal restructuring. …

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