Solidarity, Change, Hope: The C&M Hope Solidarity Union

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On December 30, 2014, after 205 days of struggle – 177 of them occupying a sidewalk, 50 with two workers occupying an electronic billboard, 10 of hunger strikes – the C&M Branch of the Hope Solidarity Union and allies stopped investment firms MacQuarie and MBK Partners (MBK) from “dining and dashing” with their profits. Their victory fell like sweet rains upon the labor movement’s long drought; its fields littered with long term struggles continuing interminably. The C&M Branch’s new model of organizing based on solidarity between regular and irregular workers and with the community, provides a new weapon in worker’s liberation.

Dine and Dash While “dine and dash” is applied to those that eat and run without paying, after the 1997 IMF crisis, this term has been applied to speculative capital. After South Korea was forced to adopt the IMF’s financial and labor deregulations, many foreign investors acquired Korean companies extracted short-term profits at great cost to workers and society then dashed. In 2008, MBK and MacQuarie acquired 90% of C&M shares; 70%[ref]박장준. “사모펀드 MBK파트너스 김병주의 ‘씨앤앰” 먹튀 성곡 할까?” 이디어스. 2014년11월6일.[/ref] of them paid with bank loans. Instead of using their profits to pay back their loans, they liquidated 90% of their profits as dividends.[ref]홍미리. 씨앤앰 비정규직 109명 해고사태 MBK김병주가 책임져라! 노동과세계. 2014년11월18일.[/ref] Now, as they ready to sell C&M, MBK and MacQuarie attempted to fire 109 workers and destroy the union.

Becoming One Again After taking over C&M in 2008, MBK and MacQuarie restructured the company. Instead of directly hiring their workers, they created “partners” headed by former supervisors. They delegated cable installation, repair, and removal to these partners then sent 1200 of CMS’s 27000 employees to these partners. Nearly half of its workers went from working for C&M to working for its subcontracting and sub-sub contracting partners. They did the same work, for the same company but for less pay and less job stability.

In 2010, faced with the possibility of further restructuring, C&M’s regular workers organized a union. After successfully organizing their union, they organized the irregular workers in the subcontracting companies.[ref]Dong-Hoon Lee explains how they managed to convince 83% of union members to vote in support of organizing irregular workers through education. Interview with Dong-Hoon Lee Past President of C&M Union by Voice of People. 정웅재. 쌔앤앰 정규직과 비정규직 연대, 어떻게 가능했나? 2015년1월1일. 민중의소리.[/ref] In 2013, they created the C&M Irregular Workers Branch (C&M Irregular Branch) with 300 workers from various subcontractors.[ref]Interview with Dong-Hoon Lee Past President of C&M Union by Voice of People. 정웅재. 쌔앤앰 정규직과 비정규직 연대, 어떻게 가능했나? 2015년1월1일. 민중의소리.[/ref] This regular and irregular worker solidarity remains rare at a time where regular workers fear employer reprisal or jealously guard their higher status. Yet, in a time of mass layoffs, and regular workers being replaced by irregular ones, such solidarity is essential in building a labor movement able to counter the corporate offensive.

A New Union for a New Time C&M’s multilevel subcontracting is a result of the 1997 IMF crisis when South Korea was forced to adopt labor laws making it easier to hire and fire workers. Traditional union organized based on regular workers in one company or one industry became less effective as corporations responded with mass layoffs of regular workers and by hiring contracted or subcontracted workers more vulnerable to repression. The social movement fought back, mobilizing public support around worker’s struggle. Its shining moment was the “Hope Bus” when public support helped achieve a victory against Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction Company (Hanjin): Thousands of people around the nation bused to Busan to support Jin Suk Kim, who occupied a shipyard crane to protest Hanjin’s mass layoff of 400 workers.

The Hope Solidarity Union incorporates this labor and public solidarity in its mission and structure. Its struggles and activities go beyond the workplace to address broader consumer and social issues. The Hope Solidarity Union was conceived form a gathering of labor activists grappling with how to organize irregular works and overcome the limitations of company or industry based organizing. Their fights were no longer simply about increasing wages and improving worker conditions but might also tackle speculative capital or the lack of local programming in cable providers. It would be organized by community and open up its membership to workers and others in the community. It was in 2010 that the C&M workers approached the Hope Solidarity Union about organizing a branch union.

Building Solidarity A union fighting on issues and for others outside its union differs from one just fighting for its worker’s rights and wages: the former requires solidarity. In a society that encourages people to look after themselves and their families rather than others, such solidarity doesn’t just happen.

“[Workers] - after 40-50 years being educated in this society; just doing what their bosses told them to do; busy spending the money they made; or getting their wages cut if they get sick and can’t show up to work - can figure out that if they fight their wages will go up,” explains Eun Seon Kim (General Secretary of Hope Seed).

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Hope Seed was created to build solidarity by strengthening the bonds between workers and community. Hope Seed not only manages a community fund – won through collective bargaining with employers[ref]As part of its collective bargaining agreement, the C&M Branch negotiated an annual 150 million won (~$150,000) annual fund for the community for 2011, 2012, and 2013. As part of its acquisition of C&M, McQuarie had to create a 3 billion won community fund.[/ref] - it also organizes workers on a new vision of society based on solidarity and cooperation through workshops, lectures, community volunteer work, and activities. As Eun Seon explain, solidarity must be jumpstarted in the worker’s hearts and minds: ““At first they are reluctant to spend their weekends helping the community or participating in activities. But after they come once, they realize, ‘Wow, this is nice.’ ‘This is fun.’ ‘Should I go again’ ‘Let’s bring another member out.’ ” Hope Seed’s work promotes a new vision of unions. “The union members start to think that ‘unions naturally do this type of community involvement,” explains Eun Seon.

Ready to Rumble

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In June 2014, in an attempt to make C&M more desirable for sale by destroying its union, C&M fired 109 irregular workers by changing subcontractors. The C&M Irregular Branch went on strike with the support from C&M Branch. In July, workers permanently occupied a sidewalk in front of the MBK partners building. In November, two irregular workers climbed and occupied a nearby electronic billboard. Then a few days later, the C&M Branch joined the strike. By December 30, the Union achieved full re-instatement of the 109 fired, a promise of no structural re-adjustment from the sale of C&M, and a 2014 collective bargaining agreement.

It wasn’t simply the solidarity between regular and irregular workers that made the victory possible; it was also the solidarity from the community. “We organized C&M cable subscribers to call and threaten to cancel their subscription if C&M kept mistreating its workers,” recounts Young Shin Ahn (President of Young People and Children’s Network, one of the organizations that supported C&M’s struggle). Community organizations also took turns visiting the occupation and gathering petitions with the union’s demands. The community supported because the fight was no longer someone else’s fight; now, their community cable guy was involved. This solidarity inspired solidarity in the workers’ hearts. “Through last year’s protests, C&M workers experienced solidarity from numerous organizations, some of which they had never even heard about. That’s when they understood solidarity,” relates Dong Hoon Lee (2012-2013 C&M Branch President). Hope Seed’s work had born fruits.

Creating a Happy Society

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The Hope Solidarity Union’s main goal is transforming society by transforming workers and communities through struggle, education, and practice. After being president, Dong Hoon Lee is part of Hope Seed’s board and operations committee. Lately, he has been asking himself, “How can we be happy?” When he asks co-workers if their lives changed after their higher wages and improved working conditions, many say no. Dong Hoon Lee elaborates, “Some might be buying 20,000 won shoes, others 50 or 100,000 won shoes. Of course, one can be happy with 100,000 won shoes. But those shoes may mean that father can’t spend time with his kids because he has to work more to make that extra money.” Before the union, he too lived making as much money as possible. Now he’s a 9-to-6 worker. The rest of the time he spends doing community work for Hope Seed and urban gardening in the weekends with his family. Solidarity through the union has changed him. Solidarity can transform society because it transforms us in the process.

Special thanks to Jin Gyu Kim (President of C&M Branch), Jeong Pil Kim (Vice-President of External Cooperation for C&M Branch), Yong-Shin Ahn (President of Children and Teen Network), Eun-Seon Kim (General Secretary of Hope Seed), and Dong-Hoon Lee (Board and Operations Committee member of Hope Seed and 2012-2013 President of C&M Branch) for their time and insights.

written by Dae-Han Song (chief editor, World Current Report)