More than a month after they climbed on top of a factory chimney on December 13, 2014, Director Kim Jeong-wook and Policy Director Lee Chang-geun of the Ssangyong Motors branch of the Metal Workers Union still remain 70 meters above the Ssangyong auto plant to wage protest.

The reason why the two laid-off workers decided to withstand gale-force winds in the dead of winter to wage protest on top of a factory chimney is because it’s the last remaining hope for the laid-off Ssangyong workers.  The two protesters say they chose to climb the factory chimney because in their current situation, in which not only the company but the courts and politicians have all turned their backs on the laid-off workers, they have no one but each other to lean on.

Policy Director Lee Chang-geun says, “We can withstand the cold weather, we can dry off the rain in the wind, and we can make a snowman with the snow. That’s not a problem.  All we wish for is a warm gaze and a handshake from our comrades inside the factory.  It would be great for the comrades inside the factory to take a stand to resolve this long tiresome Ssangyong fight.”

 

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Shunned by the Courts and the Political Elite for Six Years

The Ssangyong Motors crisis started in April 2009, when its owners, blaming the economic crisis,  announced a major restructuring of the company.  In response, the union took over its plant in Pyeongtaek on May 21, 2009, and waged a 77-day strike.  After that, 2646 workers lost their jobs through lay-offs and forced early retirement.  And in the past 6 years, 25 of the laid-off workers and their family members have lost their lives due to suicide or illness.

Labor unions and civil society groups formed a national task force to demand the reinstatement of the laid-off Ssangyong workers.  When the Ssangyong crisis became a widely-publicized national issue, even the ruling Saenuri Party pledged a government investigation of the situation during the presidential campaign of 2012.  But immediately after the election, the ruling party and the government quickly abandoned their pledge.

The ruling party’s betrayal was followed by disappointment in the courts in 2014.  The laid-off Ssangyong workers and their families, who had waged a six year fight for reinstatement on the streets, received devastating news on November 13, 2014.  On that day, the South Korean Supreme Court delivered a final ruling on a lawsuit filed by 153 laid-off Ssangyong workers to invalidate the lay-off.  The court ruled that Ssangyong’s mass lay-offs in 2009 was a valid and necessary business measure in an urgent crisis. The Supreme Court rejected the appellate court’s ruling in February 2014 to invalidate the lay-off and sent the case back to the Seoul High Court.

November 13, the day that the laid-off Ssangyong workers’ only thread of hope was callously crushed by the Supreme Court, was, of all days, a seminal date in the history of South Korea’s labor movement.  It was the day that martyr Jeon Tae-il took his own life through self-immolation to demand the enforcement of basic labor rights in 1970.

Policy Director Lee Chang-geun remembers how he felt on the day of the Supreme Court ruling, “I feared what we might face – that comrades would fall, and we would once again have to return to funeral homes.”

First Day on the Chimney

At 4 am on December 13, 2014, exactly one month after the Supreme Court ruling, the two laid-off workers jumped over the factory fence and evaded security cameras to climb to the top of the factory chimney over the next five hours.  On the first day of their protest atop the chimney, the two laid-off workers received two pieces of news.

They learned that the police had arrested two other laid-off Ssangyong workers, who had tried to put up a tent across from the chimney in support of their chimney protest.

 

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The other piece of news was much heavier.  A laid-off Ssangyong worker, surnamed Park (age 47), had passed away after fighting liver cancer.  It was the 26th death of a laid-off worker since the mass lay-off in 2009.   According to the Ssangyong Motors branch of the Metal Workers Union, Park had worked at Ssangyong Motors since 1996 and was laid off in 2009.  Park, who had injured his disk on the job, spent his entire severance pay on filing for workers compensation and getting treatments for his back, then worked part-time at a gas station and as an irregular worker at a subcontracting firm for Ssangyong Motors. He is survived by his wife and two teenage daughters.  Kim Deuk-jung, the Ssangyong Motors branch chair of the Metal Workers Union, said, “With economic and psychological stress on top of an irregular lifestyle, even those who are healthy are not well.  It’s as if the courts and the company have pushed the laid-off workers to the edge of a cliff.  We have no choice but to fight to return to the factory.”

Unending Solidarity

The two protesters’ daily journal is widely circulated through “Chimney Daily,” a newsletter produced by supporters of the chimney protest.  (Click here for the Chimney Daily Facebook page)

The first issue of Chimney Daily on December 19, 2014 described the protesters’ first day on top of the chimney.  It also included the day’s weather report (windy) and messages of support for the protesters.  Chimney Daily started to refer to the two protesters – Kim Jeong-wook and Lee Chang-geun – as the “chimneyites.”

Since the chimneyites’ began their protest, labor and civil society groups have demonstrated unending support and solidarity.   And the Chimney Daily has been documenting each and every act of solidarity from various sectors of society.

People from all walks of life, including grandmothers who had been forcibly conscripted as comfort women by the Japanese military, have sent donations in support of the chimneyites.  The grandmothers sent new year’s gifts with messages of support, which read, “Even at 90 years old, I have not given up and continue to fight in front of the Japanese embassy every wednesday,” and “Never give up!”

From January 7 through 11, laid-off workers from Ssangyong Motors, Cort/Cor-tek, Star Chemical, and Kiryung Electronics led a prostration procession in Seoul to demand the reinstatement of the laid-off Ssangyong workers and an end to mass lay-offs and irregular employment.  The procession involved full prostration, i.e. bowing by placing the head, chest, arms, legs, and the abdomen on the ground in a reverential gesture.

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Celebrities such as singer Lee Hyori and actor Kim Ui-sung have caused a stir in the media by joining the campaign to support the chimneyites.

On January 13, 2015, Ssanyong Motors introduced Tivoli, a new mini-SUV. At the official Ssangyong Motors launching event for the new car, the Ssangyong Motors National Task Force held a press conference to demand the reinstatement of the laid-off workers.  At the press conference, they displayed 26 pairs of shoes, representing the 26 laid-off workers and family members who have died since the lay-off.

 

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On January 14, Anand Mahindra, chair and largest shareholder of India’s Mahindra Group, which owns Ssangyong Motors, held a 20-minute meeting with Kim Deuk-jung and Kim Jungwoo, leaders of the Ssangyong Motors Branch of the Metal Workers Union.  Although the meeting between Chairman Mahindra, on a visit to attend the launching of the new car, and the laid-off workers was brief and failed to yield anything concrete, it was significant in that it was the first meeting between the company and the workers.

A national demonstration to demand the reinstatement of the laid-off Ssangyong workers, regularization of irregular labor, and an end to mass layoffs is planned for January 24 outside Seoul Station.