Defeat at Ssangyong shows need for struggles to spread

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One of the most significant outbreaks of class struggle in South Korea for many years, the occupation of the Ssangyong car plant in Pyeongtaek near Seoul, ended at the beginning of August.

Having held the factory for 77 days in the face of siege conditions where they were denied food, water, gas and electricity, and had to resist repeated onslaughts by the police backed by a small army of company goons and strikebreakers, the workers were compelled to abandon the occupation with many of their key demands unmet, and were immediately subjected to a wave of repression in the form of arrests, interrogations and possible crippling fines.

The South Korean economy never really recovered from the crash-landing of the ‘Tigers and Dragon' in 1997 - a precursor of today's ‘credit crunch'. With the global car industry in deep trouble, the Ssangyong Motor Company, which is now controlled by a Chinese motor conglomerate, has been gradually reducing the workforce and came up with a plan to offer the plant as collateral in order to secure the loans it needed to emerge from bankruptcy. This plan involved many more lay-offs - 1700 workers forced into early retirement and the firing of 300 casual workers - and a transfer of technology to China with the eventual aim of wholesale outsourcing to the cheaper labour markets available in Korea's powerful neighbour.

The strike and plant occupation, which began in earnest on 22 May, raised the demand for no lay-offs, no casualisation and no outsourcing. Throughout the occupation, the thousand or so workers holding the plant have shown exemplary courage and ingenuity in defending themselves against police forces equipped with helicopters, tear gas, stun guns and other military hardware. This resistance required not only the making of improvised weapons (metal pipes, molotovs, slingshots) but also planning and tactical sense - for example, they responded to overwhelming force by retreating to the paint department, calculating (correctly) that the flammable materials there would dissuade the police from using tear gas canisters, especially in the wake of a recent tragedy in Seoul when five people died in a fire set off during a clash with the police.

These activities required initiative and self-organisation. It appears that the workers were organised into 50 or 60 groups with ten members each, each of these groups electing a delegate to coordinate action.

The occupation also inspired solidarity actions from other workers, many of whom face the same uncertain future. Workers from the nearby Kia automobile plant were particularly active, with hundreds of workers coming to the factory to defend it against concerted police attack. Attempts to reach the factory gates and provide food and supplies to the occupiers were met with the same brutal violence as that doled out to the workers inside. There is no doubt that the occupation had considerable support throughout the Korean working class - a fact reflected in the national trade union federation, the KCTU, calling a two day general strike and a national solidarity rally in late July.

Behind the defeat

But although some of the original measures proposed by the bosses were rescinded at the end of the strike, the occupation ended in defeat. Workers emerged from the occupation battered and bruised, some seriously injured, and with a small spate of suicides among employees or their families.

"In the final negotiations, the local union president agreed to early retirement (i.e. layoff with severance pay) for 52% of the occupiers, with 48% furlough for one year without pay, after which they will be rehired, economic conditions permitting. The company will also pay a 550,000 won monthly subsidy for one year to some workers transferred to sales positions.

In the ensuing days, insult was piled on injury with detention and pending indictments of scores of workers, and a 500,000,000 won ($45,000,000 US) lawsuit by the company against the KMWU. As indicated, further individual lawsuits, possible under Korean labor law which have left striking workers destitute in the past, may follow. The company claims 316 billion won ($258.6 million) damages and about 14,600 vehicles in lost production due to the strike"[1].

What this defeat demonstrates above all is that no matter how well you organise to defend an occupied factory, if the struggle doesn't spread, it will be ground down in the vast majority of cases. The central need of any group of workers faced with redundancies is to go to other workers, other plants and offices, and explain the necessity for common action, so as to build up a balance of forces that can compel the bosses and the state to step back. The active solidarity shown by the Kia and other workers outside the factory gates shows that this is not utopian, but the emphasis needs to be on extension rather than simply resisting police attacks on an occupied plant, however necessary the latter may be. Workers reflecting on this defeat have to pose the question: why weren't these real expressions of solidarity translated into a direct extension of the struggle, to Kia and other workplaces? More than this: those militant minorities who find themselves questioning the strategy of the unions need to get together in groups or committees in order to push for the extension and independent organisation of the struggle.

For us, the key here is that the problem of extension was taken in hand by the unions, whose ‘general strikes' were part of a well-worn ritual - symbolic actions that were not at all aimed at mobilising large numbers of workers even to demonstrate support for the Ssangyong occupation, let alone widen the struggle with their own demands. Within the plant, the union (the KMWU) seems to have maintained an overall control of the situation. Loren Goldner, who was in Korea when the struggle began and paid a visit to the plant, recounts his discussion with one worker participating in the occupation:"I spoke to one activist participating in the occupation and critical of the role of the union. In his view, the KMWU remained in control of the strike. However, in contrast to role of the unions in the Visteon struggle in the UK and in the dismantling of the US auto industry, the KMWU supported the illegal actions of seizing the plant and preparing for its armed defense. On the other hand, in negotiations with the company, it concentrated on the demand for no layoffs and soft-pedaled the demands for job security for all and against out-sourcing".

The extension of the struggle cannot be left in the hand of the trade unions - it can only be effectively carried out by the workers themselves. When the unions support illegal actions and when their local representatives participate in a struggle, it does not prove that the unions can sometimes be on the side of the struggle. At best it shows that lower union officials, as in the case of the KMWU local president, are often also workers and can still act as workers; but at worst it serves to maintain the illusion that unions, at least on the local level, are still fighting organisations of the proletariat.

Goldner draws the following conclusions from the defeat:

"The Ssangyong defeat cannot be attributed merely to the lame role of the KMWU national organization, which from the beginning allowed the negotiations to be channeled in a narrow focus on ‘no layoffs'...Nor can the defeat be fully explained by the atmosphere of economic crisis. Both of these factors undoubtedly played a major role. But above and beyond their undeniable impact, it is the year-in, year-out rollback of the Korean working class, above all through casualisation, which now affects more than 50% of the work force. Thousands of workers from nearby plant did repeatedly aid the Ssangyong strike, but it was not enough. The defeat of the Ssangyong strikers, despite their heroism and tenacity, will only deepen the reigning demoralization until a strategy is developed that can mobilize sufficiently broad layers of support, not merely to fight these defensive battles but to go on the offensive".

We would certainly agree that the atmosphere of economic crisis can and does have a paralysing effect for many workers, who can see that the strike weapon is often ineffective when the plant is closing anyway, and who have seen so many occupations against closures being strangled after a lengthy siege. The process of casualisation also plays a part in atomising the workforce, although we don't think it is the decisive factor and certainly does not only apply to Korea. In any case, it is itself an aspect of the crisis, one of the many measures the bosses use to reduce labour costs and disperse resistance.

Ultimately, Goldner is right to say that the workers will have to go on the offensive - ie, launch into mass strikes that take on the goal of overthrowing capitalism - but it is precisely the dawning realisation of the magnitude of the task that, in an initial period, can also make workers hesitate to engage in any struggle at all.

One thing is certain: the passage from defensive to offensive struggles cannot be posed in Korea alone. It can only be the result of an international maturation of class struggle, and in this sense, the defeat at Ssangyong, and the lessons to be drawn from it, can make a real contribution to this process.

Amos 1/9/9.



[1] From the detailed balance sheet of the strike written by Loren Goldner on libcom.org.