South Korea: Ssangyong Occupation Ends In Defeat

On 5 August the 77 day strike and occupation at the Ssangyong car plant came to an end. This militant struggle of 1700 workers which has received virtually no coverage in the official western media started back in May as a struggle against mass redundancies in the wake of the company filing for bankruptcy.

The Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation

The Ssangyong Motor Company of Pyeongtaek near Seoul, is owned by the Chinese Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation which acquired a 51% share in the firm about three years ago. Since the take over, a process of reducing the workforce of 8,700 has been going on. By the time the company filed for bankruptcy in February of this year it had been reduced to 7000 and had been transferring much of the plant’s machine tools to China. This will sound familiar to former Longbridge workers as this is why the same company acquired Rover at about the same time. The plant was shut and the assembly line taken to China.

Exploiting cheap Chinese living labour with the "dead labour" of existing machines in older established industries seems to be the general strategy for Chinese state capitalism to boost profit rates.

However as the plant was actually set up via Korean state subsidies the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation has to go through the procedure of trying to re-float the enterprise. The plan for the refinancing of the firm required substantial cost cutting to be achieved by a large number of lay offs. Following this, the company fired 300 casual workers and sought to force another 1700 into early retirement. It was from the ranks of the latter that the occupiers came.

The Occupation

The all out strike and occupation of the plant began on 22 May. The workers’ demands included no layoffs, no casualisation and no outsourcing of jobs. The casualisation of the labour force has constituted a significant attack on the working class in South Korea as casuals earn substantially less than regular workers and have no job security. Recent legislation ostensibly intended to give casual workers job security after 2 years has only encouraged employers to fire workers as they come up to 2 years of service. This is how "reforms" operate under decaying capitalism.

Every so-called reform makes workers worse off sooner or later and in the current stage of the capitalist crisis there is no question that we will be made to pay. This is why workers under attack are responding by trying to deny the use of the plant to the bosses.

Initially the Ssangyong occupation continued with little intervention by the state authorities, partly due to a crisis within the ruling class following the suicide of the 'left-leaning' expresident Noh Mu Hyeon ,and subsequent large scale demonstrations against the right wing government, in protest against the effects of the world economic crisis. However as time went on the state began to release its arsenal of oppression against the striking workers. On June 16 an anti-strike rally of scab workers and hired thugs took place outside of the factory.

During this time around 700 workers from the nearby Kia car plant joined the strikers to defend the occupation.

The workers decided to base the occupation in the paint shop, the idea that the flammable chemicals may deter the police from launching an attack which may result in the paint shop being destroyed and loss of life.

Towards the end of June, the State’s attacks on the workers intensified.

On June 26 and 27 violent clashes took place between the workers and a combination of employer hired thugs and scabs and, the riot police.

Workers fought back with iron bars and Molotov cocktails but the bosses managed to secure the main factory building with the workers retreating to the paint shop as planned. More violent attacks followed and gas and water supplies to the factory were cut off. As well as physical confrontation the company and the state employed psychological pressure by flying police helicopters over the plant round the clock to deprive the workers of sleep. Water and gas supplies were turned off (but not initially electricity for safety reasons).

The workers had to resort to collecting rainwater and improvising toilets after the WCs were blocked.

Conditions in the hot summer were distinctly grim. The state also sought to intimidate individual workers with legal action by suing them for huge sums of money for loss of revenue resulting from the occupation.

The response of the workers' union, the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU), was to formally support the "illegal" occupation but not to go further in challenging the state.

Instead they called for a half day general strike of metal workers which led to a rally in support of the Ssangyong workers in front of the factory. On July 4th and 11th the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) held a series of workers' rallies across the country.

However the occupying workers effectively remained isolated and imprisoned within the factory.

On 20 July the authorities commenced their final assault on the factory; around 200 riot police surrounded the factory and teargas was sprayed from helicopters. The workers responded by launching Molotov cocktails and catapults at the police. The KCTU responded by calling a two day general strike, and strikes were called by the KMWU.

However these actions were limited and formalistic. On 25 July a rally outside of the Pyeongtaek railway station in support of the strikers led to a further violent confrontation with the police. By the end of July the police and company thugs recaptured all of the plant with the exception of the paint shop. On 1st August the company finally cut off the electricity supply to the paintshop and by 5 August after further battles, the occupation was ended.

Defeat

The strike ended with an almost total defeat for the workers. The settlement finally agreed with the KMWU resulted in 52% of the strikers being given early retirement with some severance pay whilst the other 48% were offered a year's unpaid leave with a vague commitment from the firm to re-hire them after a year if economic conditions permit. Even after the strike ended, the state has continued to arrest and detain individual militants and workers are also facing the prospect of further damages claims from the company.

From the information we have received approximately 5 workers committed suicide as a result of the pressures arising from the strike.

What Can We Learn from Ssangyong?

The struggle at Ssangyong is not atypical of industrial workers' responses to the severity of the economic crisis. Although at a far higher level of participation and militancy, the lessons from Ssangyong are essentially the same as those we have seen recently, albeit on a smaller scale in the UK at Visteon and Vestas. Factory occupations no matter how militant are unlikely to succeed without a broader generalisation of the struggle. Whilst obviously essential, it is not enough that the strikers received support from their local communities and that workers from other factories joined rallies and demonstrations in support, because ultimately the struggle remained isolated within the factory gates. The demonstrations and half day 'solidarity actions' organised by the unions were predictably useless and merely served to ghettoise the Ssangyong strikers. In a period of a generalised attack on the working class, our class can only fight back effectively with a generalised response which means not only solidarity actions but other workers joining in the struggle for their own demands. This means going beyond the trade unions which seek to isolate and compartmentalise the working class by trade and by employer. At some level there appears to have been some recognition of this by the Ssangyong strikers who within the factory, adopted an organisational form which appeared on the face of it to be outside of the union structure.

The workers formed about 50 struggle groups, comprising of 10 workers. Each group, or chojang, elected a delegate to participate in a co-ordinating committee. But without a wider perspective for generalisation even these democratic fighting structures can be recouped by the unions.

Ssangyong illustrates the urgent need for revolutionary minorities to increase their presence in the working class and to assist the process of development of class consciousness.

In this period any economic struggle must also have a conscious political dimension if the class struggle is to go forward.

Embryonically the occupying workers came to realise this.

In a press conference they gave at the factory gates on 27 July one worker finished by saying; ... We have been doing our best to solve this dispute with the principle of peaceful settlement with dialogue. Nevertheless, if this kind of brutal, deadly repression continues, we openly declare our resolute will to fight to the death..

Those of us in here will show our determination to die to the world not only as workers but also as human beings.

Taken from Loren Goldner’s article at libcom.org

Here is a glimmer of insight that what they were doing was fighting not just for Korean jobs but for the future of humanity. This is a task which only the world working class can carry out. In the end the fight is not just for our jobs but against the state which protects capitalists and their "right" to dispose of us a mere appendages to their machines.

Materially "Workers of the World" are uniting in struggles across the planet.

What they need to do is recognise consciously that we have to replace this inhumane social system with one which addresses human needs. To achieve it we have to unite politically in a world proletarian party so that the ruling classes will once again tremble at the prospect of a workers’ revolution.

PBD

Revolutionary Perspectives

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Revolutionary Perspectives #51

Global Capitalism is Turning the Screw - We Have No Choice But to Fight

Series 3, No. 51, Autumn 2009

  • From Episodic Resistance to Global Class War
  • South Africa’s Class Struggle Explodes
  • Ssangyong Occupation in Korea
  • The Cost of the Crisis So Far
  • British Capitalism and the Miners’ Strike 1984-5
  • Harry Patch “The Last Fighting Tommy” Has Died but Warmongering Live on
  • Iranian elections: The Working Class Must Fight for its Own Agenda
  • Power - The Fundamental Question of the State in Capitalist Society