The Republic of Korea has recently been in the turmoil in every political aspect, but especially last week, so many things have happened – to name a few, for example, the now-incomplete cabinet of the government, sexual harassment case of the navy, official announcement of opening of rice market to the WTO countries, breaking down of inter-Korea talks regarding the Asian Game, and the Sewol Ferry tragedy survivor students’ 47 kilometer march to the National Assembly Hall demanding a special law for speedy and independent investigation.

It is hard to tell, though, whether these rapidly-changing political situations would help the struggle of the Korean Teachers’ and Education Workers’ Union (KTU) or not.  On July 17, 2014, the Korean Teachers’ and Education Workers’ Union announced that 39 full-time staff (out of 70 total) of the KTU will return to their respective teaching post.  The government has demanded that all of 70 full-time staff of the KTU return to their post in schools, as the Seoul Administrative Court denied the injunctive relief the KTU sought for, against the decision of ripping off the legitimate status of trade union from KTU.  The Ministry of Employment and Labor (Labor Ministry) had earlier threatened severe punishments to the KTU, unless the 70 full-time staff return to their post, effectively closing down the operation of the KTU, and in response, the KTU had promised “all out struggle”.

Accordingly to Hangyoreh newspaper‘s report of July 17, 2014, this is a generous compromise by KTU, preventing the chaos on a minimum level in the school system.  Hangyoreh also implied that this is also a compromise made in consideration of the quandary  in which the progressive school superintendents are politically situated.  The KTU announced, “now, the ball is in the court of Ministry of the Employment and Labor and Ministry of Education.  We have only maintained the minimum number of staff to operate as a trade union.”

The KTU announced on July 17, 2014 that 39 full-time staff will return to their school posts.

On July 17, 2014, KTU is announcing at the KTU headquarter in Seoul that 39 full-time staff out of 70 total will return to their local posts in a generous compromise, leaving only the essentially minimum number of staff to the union.

Generally speaking, the public support for KTU’s struggle is strong and the KTU members are united for this struggle.  The Yonhap News reported of the National Teachers’ Rally against Repression of the KTU and for Basic Labor Rights on July 12, 2014 as planned in Yeouido Park, Seoul.  Approximately 7,000 (4,000 by the police estimation) teachers participated from 16 city and provincial branch  offices all over the country.  The KTU demanded in this rally 1)  reinstatement of the KTU’s legal status; 2) amendment of trade union laws for teachers; 3) resolution of the Sewol Ferry tragedy; and 4) withdrawal of nomination of Kim Myung-soo for the Minister of Education. The spokesperson of the KTU confidently stated, “we have confirmed the people’s demands for new public education through the result of last election for the Superintendents of Education,” and “the KTU will continue to dedicate on reform of public education and school system,  disestablishing competition-based education system which has been solely focused on entrance exams.” 

Brief Chronology of Battles of the Korean Teachers’ Union

The government repression on the KTU is a part of the general attack to the progressive movement.  Under the current labor law, only employees of a workplace are qualified to become union members. But the KTU had about 20 dismissed workers as members.  The Labor Ministry gave the KTU a one-month ultimatum on September 23, 2013 to disqualify dismissed teachers from the union’s membership if the KTU was to retain its legitimacy.  The KTU previously argued that the government’s order to change its controversial bylaws which recognize dismissed teachers as members would be detrimental to the livelihood of the KTU, since most of the dismissals were related to the signing onto statements against the previous Lee Myung-bak administration.  The KTU had previous rejected the same order twice in 2010 and 2012.

As you would recognize that September of 2013 is the same time as the incumbent Assemblyman Lee Seok-ki was detained in charge of conspiracy for insurrection, and the Unified Progressive Party was later threatened to be disbanded in November of 2013.  The Assemblyman Lee Seok-ki is now in prison, appealing the guilty verdict, and the dissolution of the Unified Progressive Party is in progress in the Constitutional Court.

In October 2013, the Labor Ministry issued an order that the KTU is not a legitimate trade union and accordingly all of the full-time staff would have to go back to their original post to their respective schools.  The KTU filed a lawsuit with the Seoul Administrative Court against the decision for review, and also requested an injunction.   In the international community, this decision brought some outraged responses as well.  The International Labor Organization (ILO) has adopted a statement denouncing the South Korean government for its decision to outlaw the country’s progressive teachers’ union and recommended to let the trade union make its own decision on whether to recognize membership of dismissed educators.

The injunction was granted, and the KTU maintained its legal status until the Seoul administrative Court ruled against the appeal on June 19, 2014, defending the government decision was within the boundary of the law.  (Yonhap news report)  The KTU immediately filed an appeal of the Seoul Administrative Court’s decision, stating, “it is an abuse of discretionary power to revoke the official status that the KTU has held for 15 years simply because it included nine (9) dismissed teachers, representing 0.015% of its 60,000 members.”  The KTU also filed another request for injunction of the government decision, but the same court denied the second injunction on June 30, 2014, enabling the government to make the move against the KTU.

Declaring  the “all-out struggle” against the government decision, the KTU organized an half-day struggle on June 27, 2014 and held a national teachers rally on July 12, 2014 rally, but finally made a concession of returning 39 of the full-time staff back to their teaching posts, considering the political circumstances.  

But, the Education Ministry asked public prosecutors to investigate 36 teachers who led half-day strike action in June and accused 71 union officials for preparing an anti-government statement on behalf of its member teachers.  The government has claimed the teachers violated their duty to maintain political neutrality and a ban on political activities by civil servants.  The police raided and took computers and servers from the KTU headquarter on July 16, 2014, according to Yonhap News.

The KTU then filed a petition with the national Human Rights Commission, demanding the Education Ministry cancel moves to discipline and seek the criminal punishment of union members for taking part in political protest.

Domestic Responses to the struggles of the Korean Teachers’ Union

In the meantime,  during the local election of June 4, 2014, people shows support for the KTU by electing the progressive school superintendents (13 out of total 17) and 8 of the elected superintendents were the former staff of the KTU.  (please see earlier post, http://zoominkorea.org/south-korea-local-elections-2014.)

The current Park Geun-hye government is rapidly losing people’s trust and support, and yet, the ruling Saenuri Party (aka New Frontier Party) supports the court decision, by stating that the ruling is “very sensible” and “legitimate.”  The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) said the court decision is “shameful,” and declared that it would join the KTU’s political battle supporting its decision. 

Hangyoreh Newspaper reported that there was also a strong backlash from labor advocacy groups.  The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) stated, “we are astonished by the position of the government – which regards dismissing people for their dedication to union activity as a weapon for keeping them from participating in that union – as well as by the decision of the court to hold that position.”  The KCTU further stated that the KTU has been leading an educational reform, and worried that there will be a serious setback in the educational system, as well as in the activities of the newly elected school superintendents.  

People’s Struggle will continue

The current Park Geun-hye government has shown again and again, that it is incapable of democratic governance of the country.

Instead of forming a special investigation team for the Sewol Ferry tragedy right away, it is playing a media game on blaming a few other individuals.  The Sewol Ferry tragedy is not an accident in a sense.  It  is a man-made disaster that the mismanagement and lack of regulation brought that was to happen at any time.  Instead of listening to the families of the victims and speedily focusing on the resolution, Park Geun-hye government has been concentrating on censoring the media and violently repressing the people’s movement.  The KTU struggle is a typical example of the inability and undemocratic operation of the Park Geun-hye government.

Teachers and citizens calling for stopping governmental repression on the KTU.

On June 27, 2014, teachers and supporters got together for a rally on the day a half-day strike was organized.

“No matter what sophistry is employed, the KTU is a labor union, and there is only one truth. I believe that this is a decision that relies on superficial legal analysis to undermine constitutionally guaranteed labor rights,” said Kwon Young-guk, a lawyer representing the KTU, after the appeal is filed.

The KTU was originally born out of the teachers’ 35 year-long struggles under severe governmental repression to bring true reform of the educational system for all.   The KTU had to confront challenges and threats from the Ministry of Education in every administration.  Accordingly, the legal battle does not appear to be promising, the future of the KTU does not appear to be so grim.

Without much trust in the administration or in the legal system, people will still be watching the unfolding of the KTU struggle.  Every struggle is connected at this point.  People’s struggle only accumulates its strength as time goes by under the Park Geun-hye administration.   The words of the Sewol Ferry tragedy, “we are sorry. We will never forget. We will make this country safe,” will run true to the heart of all Koreans.