Continued from Part 6
THE DEMOCRATIC LABOR MOVEMENT, 1987-1989
When Roh Tae Woo made public the platform on which he would run for president, it sounded more progressive and democratic than either of his opponents, Kim Dae Jung or Kim Yong Sam. Not only did he promise direct presidential elections and local autonomy, but he declared that, if elected, he and his government would guarantee the basic rights of all citizens. He would allow all sectors of society to practice self-regulation, ending strict government control over many aspects of life.
The date of this statement, June 29, 1987, has become a pivotal date in the history of Korean labor. Noh’s speech was like a match set to timber waiting to be kindled. It provided the opportunity for unionism to explode out of the confines in which it had been shackled. Decades of pent up humiliations were let loose resulting in wave after wave of worker demonstrations and union organizing. The post June 29 period is reminiscent of the 1945 post-liberation period when workers and their allies, released from prison, organized thousands of industrial and agricultural workers in only a few weeks. Within four months after Noh’s declaration, no less than 3400 labor disputes erupted throughout Korea. Within a year after June 29, 2799 new local unions were formed. 587,167 new members were added to union roles, an increase in total membership of almost 63 percent.
To the consternation of many, the new wave of labor militancy was accompanied by a re-emergence of progressive and socialist thought. This also recalls the post-liberation period of 1945 when socialist thought was so much a part of the struggle. After Chun Pyung was eliminated (1947), any political thought other than conservative capitalism or authoritarianism became taboo. For four decades, any serious consideration even of progressive liberalism was forbidden. One who even mentioned the words socialism or communism would risk arrest.
Since 1947 Korean labor had been pent up within the confines of what had been termed economic unionism. Workers were told that the only legitimate function of a union was to improve wages and working conditions. Unions were not to become involved in politics. At the same time, every effort of the unions to improve working conditions was opposed by government and employer. Organizing unions and standing tall for wage increases were quite likely to be labelled as communist. Obviously a deception was being perpetrated, but there was little effort by union leaders of the 1970’s to analyze its nature.
Kwangju changed all that. Under the stark reality that the powers in control were willing to kill their own citizens rather than allow democratization, students, workers, and other dissidents began to see Korean society in terms of class struggle. The chaebol and the military dictators were identified as the ruling class. Propping up that class were foreign capital and foreign troops. Workers, the poor and even the middle class, were seen as the oppressed and manipulated. In a word, Korean society was analyzed in terms of class struggle. From this analysis comes the obvious conclusion that the function of a labor union is not only to persuade the employer to give a few extra cents an hour for the workers’ labor, but to also politically and socially confront the power structures so as to democratize society. A participatory society of equals must replace the oppressive class society that precipitated the massacre at Kwangju.
This form of class analysis spread through the underground circles of students, workers, and political dissidents. When the dam broke with Roh Tae Woo’s declaration of June 29, 1987, the ideology of class struggle had already been widely accepted by those who became part of the minju labor movement. The similarity of this class struggle ideology with that of Marxism and North Korea is obvious and therefore frightens much of the population which is still steeped in bitter anti-communism. Others, however, declare that only the phrases are similar. Actually, the class analysis reflects a Korean nationalism come of age. Korea is tired of being subservient in a world of big nations like the U.S.A., Japan, and the Soviet Union. It is now time to exert its independence by cutting loose from its old dependencies — which primarily means the U.S.A. Likewise, it is time for the people to exert themselves against a ruling class that has too long kept them as second class citizens, and in the case of workers, even as serfs.
The widespread 1987 labor revolt significantly hit the larger corporations, the chaebol, the hardest. Some 69 percent of firms that hired a thousand or more workers were confronted with work stoppages. 38.5 percent of those hiring less than a thousand had the same experience. The waves began in the South in the big industrial concentrations of Ulsan (dominated by Hyundai), Kojedo (dominated by Daewoo and Samsung) and Changwon (dominated by Goldstar and Hyundai) and spread north. The chaebol were organized first and then soon after, businesses of all sizes were rapidly organized. The enthusiasm spread outside the boundaries of the “blue collar” industrial workers, and into the “white collar” service sectors of health care, research at government agencies, education institutions, and insurance companies, opening up an entirely new dimension for Korean unionism.
The remainder of this chapter will focus on representative struggles that have taken place in each of the three sectors: the chaebol, small-medium industry and the “white collar” service industries.
The Korean economy is dominated by the four super-chaebol. They produce about 45% of total GNP. The success of the five-year economic plans and therefore the nation’s economic development depends on them. Likewise, they set the patterns in labor-management relations. All four of them were hard hit by the initial shock of union action in 1987. Each of them reacted out of its own tradition and philosophy to end up two years later, in postures very distinct from one another. In this chapter, each of the four will be examined and comparisons noted.
The Hyundai Group, as noted in Chapters II and IV, is the epitome of Korean industrial success. Within three brief decades, it has grown from a small construction business into one of the foremost corporations of the world. Many of the production facilities for the Hyundai empire are located in the city of Ulsan, originally a small fishing village on the southeastern coast. Twenty years ago, Hyundai transformed it into an industrial camp of 500,000 people. There are twelve Hyundai companies in Ulsan employing 80,000 workers. Thus, directly or indirectly Hyundai provides the livelihood of most of Ulsan’s population. Hyundai Motors, which exports the popular Hyundai cars to U.S. and Canada, has its plants there and employs about 20,000 workers. Hyundai’s famous shipyards have another 20,000 or so on the payroll.
The Hyundai chaebol was founded by Chung Ju Yong in 1947. Some refer to him as Korea’s Andrew Carnegie. He had little formal education, but was born with an innate genius. That along with inside connections with Pak Chung Hee propelled him into the leadership of Korean industrialists. He works, does not play and apparently seldom sleeps. His example, like the wind, he thought, would in good Confucian fashion bend the workers before him. They would model their lives after him and dedicate every nerve to the growth of the company. Chung’s self-image and his evaluation of his moral persuasiveness, however, had little in common with the employees’ image of him or the workers’ concept of their relationship to the company. Chung was seen as a hard-nosed slave driver who had little compassion for those who worked under him. His sense of high calling and his break-neck habits of work when translated down the company chain of command came out to factory or shipyard worker not as moral persuasions but as harsh dictates. Workers were humiliated by front line management. Conditions were often unsafe. Many died during the construction of the Hyundai plants in Ulsan. Injuries are still common. Supervisors act arbitrarily dispensing discipline as they wish, reducing pay, slapping workers on the head or abusing them with curses and low talk. Guards at the gates detain workers and cut their hair or search them according to their own whims.
These practices of management grated on the spirits of the workers, most of whom were high school graduates. As the success of the company grew and the wealth it created became more conspicuous, the workers’ sense of oppression deepened. Fairly high wages compared to smaller companies and other industries did not compensate for the accumulated grievances.
The Daewoo Motor Company strike of 1985 had shown that a big chaebol could be challenged. Roh Tae Woo’s statement of June 29 presented the occasion. On July 6, 1987, Kwon Yong Mok and other leaders at Hyundai Engine decided that the union’s time had come. Together with 120 fellow workers they organized a union and quickly registered it with the Office of Labor Affairs. Membership swelled immediately to over 1400. The union called upon the company to begin negotiations for a contract. It was the first union ever organized at a Hyundai plant. The union action at Hyundai Engine quickly provoked similar movement at other companies in the Hyundai Group, including Hyundai Motors and Hyundai Shipyards. Before workers at these plants could prepare the necessary registration documents, however, the company quickly sent their own men to the Office of Labor Affairs and registered a union in the name of its workers. When the bonafide union men came later, their registration documents were rejected. At an earlier time, the company’s machinations might have been quietly endured by the workers, but not in 1987. Led by unionists at Hyundai Motors and Hyundai Heavy Industries, workers demonstrated and struck throughout the month of July, demanding that the company registered unions be withdrawn. Chung Ju Yong refused to give in and vowed there would never be a union at Hyundai.
The union offensive, however, was not to be denied. Representatives from the twelve Hyundai firms in Ulsan gathered together early in August and formed an Association of Unions at Hyundai. They intended to coordinate their efforts against the chaebol. Solidarity across company lines within the chaebol was thought to be important if the union was to develop any bargaining leverage. Kwon Yong Mok, of Hyundai Engine, was elected as chair.
Their solidarity was soon tested. On August 17, six Hyundai companies announced a lockout saying they feared sabotage from the new unions which they stigmatized as “radical” and “impure elements”. Response was immediate. Forty thousand workers in gray work uniforms set off toward the city led by trucks, forklifts, heavy vehicles of all kinds. Accompanied by drums, gongs, and flutes, the crowd sang newly learned songs, interspersed with chants of “down with Chung Ju Yong!” The parade stretched for a mile. Mothers, wives and children, over a thousand strong, marched along with the workers.
The crowd thronged into the Ulsan Sports Stadium. For hours they listened to speeches, sang and chanted. About ten o’clock in the evening a surprise guest was introduced– the Vice Minister of Labor whose message to the crowd was even more surprising.
He announced that he had been in secret negotiations with Hyundai and union representatives and that Hyundai was now ready to accept unions at eight of the twelve companies. The agreement, he said, included a promise to negotiate over wages and working conditions and, most importantly, to recognize the new democratic unions in place of the unions registered by company men. The forty thousand people in the stadium cheered wildly thinking they had won a great victory.
It turned out to be a victory, but of considerably less proportions than first thought. A company spokesman in Seoul initially said that the pact had been made between the government and union. Hyundai, he said, was not party to it. Later at government insistence Chung Ju Yong consented to have his picture taken drinking a toast to peace with Lee Jae Shik, the union representative, but Chung was not one to give in after only one battle.
For another two weeks, havoc reigned. Six of the Hyundai firms in Ulsan closed down completely. A partial breakthrough came on the first day of September. Contracts were signed at three places: the Mipo Shipyards, Hyundai Heavy Electric and Hyundai Pipe Company. At other sites, however, negotiations made no headway. The chaebol clung to the old unions and refused to recognize the democratic leaders elected by the workers complaining that, contrary to law, “outsiders” had taken part in union affairs, and therefore the election of democratic officers were invalid. It appealed to the Office of Labor Affairs to invalidate the results of the union elections.
On September 2, twenty thousand workers again took to the streets. They marched toward Ulsan City Hall. Drums and gongs kept the cadence as workers shouted and chanted their demands. They were met by riot police, who waded in with clubs swinging, hoping to break the marchers into small bands and thus dissipate their strength. It did not work. One group of about three hundred stormed into the City Hall, smashing windows and breaking up furniture. Other group of about three thousand people got turned around toward the shipyards. They smashed into the company offices, scattering documents and setting fire to the furniture. The police stood by and watched. They were no match for the fury of the workers.
After two days, the police took the initiative. Special investigative teams were brought in from Seoul to ferret out “communist” involvement in the events of September 2. A dawn attack on a dormitory and a few homes netted thirty suspects. In all, 508 were arrested. Once more the workers took to the streets, 8,000 strong. This time, however, the police were prepared. Tear gas and water hoses cut the workers’ lines, and they were dispersed.
At this juncture, the Office of Labor Affairs again made an appearance. It upheld the chaebol‘s contention that “third parties” had interfered in the union elections and therefore the results of the elections were null and void. Who were the third parties? Primarily, they were union leaders from various companies within the Hyundai Group. The Association of Unions at Hyundai was declared contrary to law. Unions could not organize across company lines, and participation by the Union’s Association in affairs of any one company was illegal. Twenty leaders including Kwon Yong Mok were sentenced to jail for their roles in organizing the Association.
Thus, the first phase of the struggle at Hyundai came to a close. It had lasted only a few months. The truce was uneasy and would not last long. The union movement had accomplished much. A sense of solidarity was much in evidence; a strong core of capable leaders had emerged; and both management and government had been forced to give begrudging recognition. On the other hand, the company had fired the final shot. By having union leaders sent to jail, it proved it could control the action and by paying some of its employees to oppose the union, it could disrupt worker solidarity. Hyundai resorted to intimidation and violence in an attempt to defeat the union movement. At Hyundai the “kusadae” (save the company group) made its first appearance. It is a group of anti-union employees, sometimes joined by hoodlums from the street who are paid by the company to prevent union activity. Intimidation, kidnapping and beatings are standard procedures used against union people. At Hyundai the kusadae was comprised of former marines who worked at Ulsan. Chung Ju Yong spoke at their “kick off” dinner. He declared that the labor unions were part of a planned communist aggression against the company and nation. He appealed to the Marines to once more come to the defense of the motherland by defeating the labor union at Hyundai.
Not satisfied, however, with the protection of only the kusadae and the police, Hyundai added another level of violence against its workers. It recruited members of the Anti-Communist Youth League to serve as security guards at its Ulsan plants. The Anti-Communist Youth League is an association of right wing political toughs that dates back to the post-Liberation days of 1945-48. It joined the Syngman Rhee faction to help destroy the Chun Pyung labor union. The use of violence against the union by the kusadae and hired hoodlums became a regular practice by management in its attempt to regain its traditional control.
The second stage of the union’s battle to gain recognition at Hyundai started up in early 1988. Kwon Yong Mok was released from prison on February 4. His return to the union invigorated the workers and stirred up action. A party was given in his honor the night of his release. Part of his speech that night included the following words:
We formed a labor union because we believe the land wants to be democratic. Our lives are attached to the land we love. But they call us leftists and pro-communists. I speak plainly, our task is an inescapable task of history. It is born from our necessity. Though it is a dangerous road, let us not fall back. We reject the common place. Let us go forward with the strength and voice of the people who are now awake.
Kwon’s speech was an elegant statement of what many had come to sense and articulate: History was changing. The old authoritarianism must give way to the demands of the people.
Hyundai Engine was quite aware of the importance of Kwon to the union movement. The day after his release from prison, they fired him. Neither Kwon nor his fellow unionists, however, accepted the dismissal. They headed toward the union offices which were inside the company walls. Police and kusadae blocked the entrance through the front gate, but with aid of a thousand workers from Heavy Industry, Kwon and his men forced their way in through a back gate. The company conceded and said Kwon would be allowed entrance to the union hall, but no where else in the plant. The company still considered him to be disemployed.
The union at Hyundai Engine established a new direct-election system and proceeded to hold elections for a new slate of officers. Kwon Yong Mok was elected president by an overwhelming margin — ninety percent of the votes. The company protested vehemently and refused to recognize the newly elected slate of officers. Kwon, they said, was no longer an employee of the company, and therefore could not represent the workers.
The union leadership then decided to take an “heroic” action, trusting that somehow the suffering of the few would break through the hard and unjust hearts of the powerful. Kwon Yong Mok and a thousand of his comrades occupied the fifth floor of the office building at Hyundai Engine. They barricaded themselves in. Their intentions were to stay there until the company was willing to negotiate with the union officers elected by the workers. By declaring their own willingness to suffer, they hoped to morally persuade the company to negotiate. Their heroics gained immediate support from workers in all sectors of the Hyundai group. Statements were made; telegrams of support were sent; delegations came to the city to urge them on. The leaders on the fifth floor, however, had not planned well. The leadership left below was not instructed about how to use the support of the groups to bring sustained pressure on the company. After a few days the shouting and chanting melted away. The workers on the fifth floor were left to themselves.
The company, unimpressed with the heroics, sent in the police and the baikgoldan (a police unit especially trained in taikwando and other martial arts) to disperse the crowds and beat up on those who resisted. They gradually surrounded the building, closing off all access to the men on the fifth floor. They became prisoners. The company then whittled away at the prisoners’ morale. Fake telegrams with notices of deaths in the family were sent, urging workers to return home; the fire alarm was sounded in the middle of the night, and a loud speaker declared the building was on fire and everyone must evacuate; family members were brought to the building to plead to the men to give up. Within a couple of weeks, the number of men in the building dropped to 300. Then the company played its trump card. They announced that unless the workers come down immediately, their exemption from military service would be withdrawn. Over two hundred of the remaining workers were affected. It would have meant not only loss of job and three years in the military, but financial ruin for most of their families.
Ninety remained. When the company requested negotiations, Kwon and four others went down to begin talks. Instead of talks, they were seized by the kusadae, thrown in a van and taken prisoner to another building. Word of Kwon’s captivity spread instantly around the various plants. A large number of protesters surrounded the building where he was being kept. They demanded his freedom. He was freed temporarily but on March 27, 1988, he was again arrested.
For a time, the “fifth floor” incident caused much fury. Hyundai Electric workers voted to strike in sympathy. Wildcat strikes broke out in other plants. Once more, however, union leadership was in jail or in hiding. The fury of the demonstrations dissipated with little concrete results. The second year of uproar ended about where the first had: A union existed and workers were behind it; but the company refused to accept worker-elected leadership fighting them with the kusadae and police.
A third saga began in December 1988. For six months, the union at Hyundai Shipyards had been trying to negotiate a collective contract. Negotiations failed, and 20,000 workers went out on strike. Once more the whole complex of Hyundai companies was thrown into a turmoil. At about this time, the chaebol‘ s president, Chung Ju Yong, went to Moscow on business. Before he left, he gathered his chief executives together and ordered them to normalize the operations at Hyundai as quickly as possible.
After Chung Ju Yong’s departure, his son, who was president of Hyundai Heavy Industry, impressed upon his senior executives the need to end the strike and normalize production before his father’s return. At this juncture a piece of intelligence came to one of the executives, Han Yu Dong. He learned that nineteen union chiefs from several Hyundai companies were planning to meet outside of town in a small resort village on January 8, 1989, at 3:30 a.m. The agenda was to develop plans for coordinated action during the coming year.
Armed with this information, Han decided to take action that he thought would resolve the labor crisis at Hyundai. First he made contact with James Lee, an American of Korean descent who assumes the role of a union-buster. Han instructed Lee to “discipline those hard line labor leaders by physical means.” The second thing Han did was to contact the superintendent of police on Lee’s behalf. The superintendent agreed to cooperate.
James Lee then proceeded to plan a commando raid against the early morning union meeting. He enlisted a hundred company men to go with him. He commandeered three company buses, walkie talkies and a supply of iron pipes and wooden clubs. As Lee’s commandos approached their destination, they were stopped by a police road block. The sergeant in charge would not let them pass, but a phone call to the police superintendent straightened him out. The vans were allowed to proceed. The union men were caught quite by surprise.
Lee and cohorts beat them badly, broke Kwan Yong Mok’s leg, and warned the unionists that they should give up their communist ways. The commandos then returned to the city where they broke into the offices of the “Association of Dismissed Hyundai Employees” and destroyed whatever could be destroyed.
The entire raid by the Lee commandos was to have been kept secret. The police were to cover their side. The company, of course, would officially know nothing of what actually happened. The presence of a foreigner, James Lee, however, was leaked out. Even Korea’s censored press could not pass up a story like that. The whole episode was exposed.
When Hyundai president Chung Ju Yong returned from Moscow, he declared, “I do not believe such terrorist acts would help resolve our labor-management disputes. It is nonsense. I am sorry that our employees caused such trouble to the citizens.”
Once more Ulsan was thrown into a commotion. The workers hit the streets. Ten thousand marched one day and twenty thousand the next. The company denied responsibility and refused to apologize in any way for Lee’s actions. Workers burned Chung Ju Yong in effigy. Chung’s response was to engage more police. 562 workers were arrested, and again “crack detectives” were brought in to round up union leaders who might be hiding.
The union reacted with continuing strikes and demonstrations. Unionists from all over the country came into the city to express solidarity. Students gathered and shouted slogans, and around the country they staged hit and run attacks on outlets for Hyundai products. Stones and firebombs were thrown; placards with signs like “We denounce the business monopoly of the Hyundai tycoon” were hung on Hyundai buildings.
For 104 days, work at the giant Hyundai complex at Ulsan came to stop. It was a stand-off. Unions insisted that the company apologize for the James Lee incident, that it negotiate with the union leadership chosen by the workers and that it not interfere in union affairs. The company’s reply was, “Stop the strike; get back to work and then we will talk.” To emphasize the point, they fired fifty-five union leaders on charges of violating company rules and destroying property.
Finally, on March 30, the police sent an attack force of 10,000 policemen into the Hyundai complex. They attacked by land, sea and air — a coordinated military attack. Workers learned of the attack before it started and disappeared out through the many gates. By the time the military operation took over Hyundai grounds, they were empty. Another scene in the as-of-yet-unended drama was over.
A few days later, workers began to reappear at their work places. Directors and managers warmly greeted them at the plant entrances saying, “Let’s get to work, united in heart and will.” Some top managers went directly to the homes of strike leaders and appealed to them to return to work so that things could be normalized.
At the same time, 300 plainclothesmen and about 2000 riot police were kept stationed around the premises.
The James Lee incident and its aftermath revealed much about labor management relations in Hyundai. The line of command in labor affairs was, and is, clear. Chung Ju Yong gives ill-defined general orders. Chief executives under him repeat the command to their subordinates, but also with little instruction as to clear goals or methods. The underlings get the word to “solve the problem, and do it soon”. It is significant that in the Hyundai case, both Mr. Han and Mr. Lee assumed that their plans to beat-up the union leaders were in keeping with the intentions of the highest management echelons which initiated the orders. Indeed, in all probability, Han’s superiors knew about the plans and made no effort to stop them. There seemed to be a non-verbalized understanding that the violence committed by the commandos was within the acceptable parameters of Chung’s initial instructions.
The Hyundai case can be generalized to some degree to other chaebol as well. Labor management policy is made at high, centralized levels. Their policies are made only in general terms. Therefore, the top men can, if they wish, always claim detachment from what actually results. Violence is often assumed by the whole line of command to be one of the options open. Chung Ju Yong never apologized, nor eschewed violence. He distanced himself by saying he did not think it would solve the problem, and he apologized to the citizens because our employees caused a disturbance. He did not apologize to the union or to the men who were beaten. The option for violence against the union leaders still stands, and everyone knows it. The process illustrated so well by Hyundai is not at all unusual. It helps explain the subsystem of policy enforcement discussed in Chapter III. This Hyundai method never allows for the growth of long-term mutual respect necessary to democratic labor relations. The company assumes that it has the right to inflict punishment on its employees to return things to what it calls “normalcy.” The word “normalcy” is not spelled out, but assumes the traditional class relationship where employer is the superior; the workers are the inferior. The employer is “father”; the employee is “son.” The “father” has the right to chastise the “son.”
There is one other point that the James Lee affair illustrates: the close, coordinated ties between company and police. Police are actually subordinate to the company in doing its bidding. Managing Director, Han Yu Dong, confided the commando-like scheme to the Superintendent of Police, the second highest police supervisor in the area. Superintendent Kwon cooperated with Han and Lee even though it violated the law. Company and police commonly coordinate actions. In the particular James Lee case, the collusion was exposed. Han and Lee were imprisoned for a short time. A police superintendent under Kwon, who was also involved, was arrested. Such punishment, however, came about only because of the high level of publicity given the case. The pattern and practice of company-police collusion has not changed.
Hyundai has been forced to recognize unions in some of its plants. Even so, it adamantly fights the union and asserts its right to interfere in internal union affairs. Unless the union officers are acceptable to the company, the company refuses to negotiate. There is no evidence that Hyundai intends to normalize labor-management relations around a concept of equality and mutual trust. It is still very much wedded to a philosophy of authoritarianism.
Even so the union has burst on to the scene with genuine power. Leadership is strong and committed. Solidarity of the workers is periodically demonstrated. The frequent arrest of leaders and interference by the company, however, has not yet allowed workers and leaders to jell into a sustained or stable movement. Under the pressures, leadership and workers often are divided. The kusadae, though organized and paid for by the company, inserts a painful cleavage among workers. The union at Hyundai is not likely to go away, but it is constantly subject to the interference of the company and the threat of the kusadae. It will require years of persistent struggle before Hyundai will accept it as a legitimate partner.
Perhaps the chaebol with the philosophy closest to Hyundai is Samsung. The two share a disdain for unionists and a dedication to a union-free workplace. In their efforts to achieve that goal, however, the two have differed considerably. Chung Ju Yong can be likened to the street fighter who takes on the opponent in open battle. Lee Byung Chul, founder, and until his death in 1986, the head of the Samsung chaebol, depended more on the quiet finesse of a CIA. Hyundai, with its straight out attacks against unions, has on several occasions been beaten. It has had to accept unions, even though it still interferes in their internal affairs. Samsung, however, has never been beaten. There were no unions prior to 1987 and none after 1987.
Lee Byung Chui was known as a “Japanese gentleman.” His wife was Japanese. His house was of Japanese style and furnishings. He patterned his own industrial empire after the Japanese zaibstsu, as all the chaebol eventually did. His employees follow the Japanese patterns of early morning exercises on the company grounds and “retreating” for periods of spiritual training. The Japanese Samurai code of “busido” which teaches loyalty to one’s “master” is said to be the heart of the spiritual training. When the company was founded in the 1940’s employees often lived in barracks,and the company town ambience commanded the relationship between employer and employees. All of these, says Professor Gregory Henderson, were taken straight from the Japanese patterns of 1935-1945.
After Samsung was given new life by Pak Chung Hee in 1972, it quickly grew into one of Korea’s most successful business groups. Today, it is a world-class corporation by any measure. There are thirty-six companies tied together in the Samsung group. Collectively they employ around 150,000people. Their products range from refined sugar to ships, from heavy machinery to the smallest, most advanced computers. They operate in several countries and their exports reach all over the world.
The Group’s anti-unionism stems from a saying often repeated by Lee Byung Chul: “I will have earth cover my eyes before a union is permitted at Samsung.” The earth has indeed covered Lee’s eyes, but his anti-unionism lives on. In recent years the anti-union stand has been absorbed into a wider company philosophy that sees history moving toward increasing individualism. Within five years or so, Samsung contends, Korean workers will be so grounded in the values of individualism that they, like their American counterparts, will prefer working in a non-union atmosphere. Industrialization, they think, moves inexorably toward individualism. So, if Samsung can stay non-unionized for another five years, it will have saved itself a lot of trouble and have the jump on the other chaebol as they try to adjust to the individualism of the future.
Samsung was well prepared to fend off union initiatives. Its spiritual education courses were effective in indoctrinating loyalty to the company, and its system of supervision quickly isolated and then expelled any who were disloyal. All employees were subject to a special series of education led by none other than James Lee, the “commando” who made the night strike against the union at Hyundai. According to employees, Lee liked to clothe himself in the mystique of the CIA and the Korean Security Command. His education was reduced to a simple formula: allowing a union in your plant is like opening the door to a thief, except in the case of a union, the thief is a communist. The communist theme was wrapped up in stories of subversion and treason. Thus before the union initiatives of 1987-89 began, Samsung employees were already steeped in a fear of unionism. As for those who were not persuaded by the education or who persisted in talking about a union, they were quickly expelled before they could contaminate others. Two examples illustrate. A young woman in the Samsung textile mill was overheard by her foreman talking about a labor union. She got a free ride home. A company car came to her room. One of her supervisors forced her to get in the car. She was then driven to the rural area from which she had come. Her parents were told that she was being returned because she was disloyal and into “impure affairs.” Her wages and severance pay were handed over, and the car returned to the company without the former employee. Such treatment is not at all unusual. A young man at another Samsung plant was discovered to have talked to several of his fellow workers about forming a union. He was forcefully held in a room and interrogated in a manner similar to a KCIA interrogation. He was not allowed to contact friend or family. He was forced to go for a trip to the countryside accompanied by company managers. When he did not show up for work, he was dismissed. Dismissed employees say that when a “dissident” of any kind is identified, immediately two or three managers are appointed to isolate and finally to get rid of him orher.
Thoroughness is a key word at Samsung. Each action is thoroughly coordinated with the appropriate government agency and the police. Samsung, in most cases, exercises enough political persuasion that its proposals and information are readily received by the authorities. To make sure that the company is not embarrassed by press or T.V., a special public relations committee keeps the media informed about everything. For example, in one plant, five men entered the office of the company president and proceeded to conduct a sit-in on behalf of dismissed fellow workers. The kusadae came and inflicted a merciless beating on the demonstrators. In the foray, a few windows were broken. That night on T.V., the news showed one picture of the men sitting on the floor and one of the broken windows. That is all. The commentator said nothing about the reason for the sit-in and nothing about the kusadae.
Though the practices of loyalty education and worker surveillance protected Samsung from most of the union offenses of 1987-89, on a few occasions the union did penetrate its defenses. When it looked like a union might take root, the company utilized three strategies.
Samsung has the distinction of having invented a new word in union history, “yuryong johap,” (ghost union). In several Samsung companies, workers actually went to the offices of the Labor Department to register a union. In each case, much to their surprise, they found that a labor union already existed in their plant. Pro-company men had preceded the unionists and had registered a union. A special Samsung twist was that the pro-company men would then vote to receive no more members into the “ghost union.”
A second anti-union strategy used by Samsung is the “sauhwei” (Company Friends Committee). In a few places where the union gained some strength, the company proposed the establishment of a Company Friends Committee where company and workers would have equal representation, and where wages and conditions of work could be negotiated. Company managers contended that they did not oppose a union, but they did not want interference from the outside sources that ordinary unionism brought. The Company Friends Committee would give all the benefits of a union without its drawbacks. It is significant that Samsung would come up with such an idea. The Company Friend Committee is reminiscent of the old World War II Japanese patriotic club that was called sampo.
The third Samsung strategy to combat unionism is the “kusadae.” Samsung has developed the kusadae to a science. One of its subsidiaries is called the “Korea Security System.” This firm trains kusadae in large numbers and apparently dispatches them to locations as designated by corporate headquarters. Not only does Samsung train its own security guards, it provides squads of kusadae to its member companies.
One story will illustrate the various methods that the chaebol employs to defeat worker attempts at unionizing. One company in the Samsung Group is called the Heavy Industries Company. It has plants in the city of Changwon and also shipyards on the island of Kojedo. On August 11, 1987 workers at the plant in Changwon went to the local Labor Office to register the union that they had recently organized. Their registration forms were rejected on grounds that a union had been registered for their plant just the day before. Only one union is allowed to a company. Ten anti-union men had their names on the Labor Department’s union registration book. In protest the unionists occupied the offices of the city’s Vice-Mayor and demanded their right to register a union. It was to no avail. The law was the law, they were told, and could not be changed. After several hours, the Vice-Mayor offered the union men a bus ride back to their plant. They accepted. As they neared the factory’s front gate, the bus was stopped by a squad of kusadae. After a sound thrashing, the unionists were divided into small groups and taken away to nearby towns for “education.”
The president of the union was locked up in a hotel room for five days where he was visited by the plant manager. The manager is reported to have said, “If you form a union, you’ll ruin the company. Forget the union and we’ll let you go.” On the sixth day the union leaders were taken to the company training center, lectured and released. When eight of them still persisted in their efforts to form a union, they were arrested on charges of violence and interfering in the workplace. While in jail, managers visited them saying that if they resigned, charges would be dropped and each would get severance pay and a stipend to meet living expenses. If they did not resign, they would be prosecuted and paid nothing. The men all resigned.
In April of the next year (1988) workers at Samsung’s Shipyards on Koje Island organized a union only to find that the company had pulled the same trick on them as it had on the workers at Changwon. A pro-company group had already registered a union. The shipyard workers went on strike, and 1500 demonstrated in protest. The company closed down the shipyards and sent in the kusadae. Heavy fighting lasted several days. On April 25, the company proposed a compromise. Instead of a regular labor union which would mean interference by outsiders into the Samsung family, the company proposed an in-house “Company Friends Committee” (sauhwei) that would perform all the functions of a union but have no outside ties. The proposal split the workers. Many wanted to give it a try. Others saw it as a subterfuge. Worker representatives were selected and a full time staff of three people was provided at company expense. The Company Friends Committee was formally initiated on June l, 1988. Nine days later seven hundred workers went on a one day strike demanding a democratic union. Leaders of the democratic union group decided to take their cause to corporate headquarters in Seoul. Of the fifty men who started on the trip to Seoul, only seven made it. The others were picked up by Samsung’s security forces somewhere along the line. The seven who did finally demonstrate in front of corporate headquarters were whisked away within twenty minutes by security officers.
Disputes over the Company Friends Committee continued to divide the workers. Toward the end of October the company paid a productivity bonus of 50,000 won (about $75) and reported that it came as result of bargaining in the Company Friends Committee. The workers protested the small amount of the bonus and took a vote to dissolve the Committee. A large number of employees did not vote, but a majority of those voting voted to dissolve. The situation was left in limbo. The Company Friends Committee still occupies its offices, but with little credibility. There is no union, though a good proportion of the workers would like one.
The Samsung approach to unionism has been quite successful in imposing the old authoritarian structures. By adapting the policies of colonial Japan to the situation of the modem chaebol, Samsung is showing the way on how to beat unions even in the midst of a strong trend in the other direction. The old class structures and class consciousness are nowhere seen more clearly than in Samsung.
To be continued in Part 8
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
George Ogle spent twelve years with Korean industrial workers in Incheon as a “factory chaplain” of Urban Industrial Mission but was deported in 1974 for speaking out on behalf of eight men, accused of being part of a communist conspiracy then tortured and executed by the Park Chung-hee government. He returned to Korea in 1989 to write South Korea: Dissent within the Economic Miracle about the history of worker struggles that gave birth to South Korea’s modern labor movement. As we strive to understand the current labor-management standoff in South Korea, Ogle’s historic account sheds light on the origins of South Korea’s labor repression and dissent.
With the author’s kind permission, ZoominKorea reproduces select chapters from South Korea: Dissent within the Economic Miracle as a special series. Part 6 of the series is from Chapter 5 of the book.
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