Organizing workers to oust President Park and change society

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The preparatory committee of Together Labor is in charge of founding an organization that creates a community of workers from all sectors from subway workers to teachers to irregular workers and even the unemployed. Such worker’s community would strengthen union struggles by building a broader front based on solidarity from outside. It would provide political education and organize those without unions. In fact, most of its 200 members are part of workplaces without unions. While the fundamental aim of unions is to represent the needs and demands of its workers, the purpose of Together Labor would be to imagine and pursue larger more fundamental social transformation. To build such community and vision, members participate in monthly meetings to get to know each other, in hobby based as well as study groups that cover a variety of political and economic topics.  Oh Sang Taek is the chair of the preparatory committee of Together Labor. During this time of political chaos, how do your activities differ from those of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions[ref] The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions is the more independent and politically progressive confederation of trade unions.[/ref] (KCTU)?

We have been campaigning under the banner of Workers’ March for Park’s Resignation. It calls for common action once a week. The campaign organizes office workers to be more active in the struggle to oust President Park. Our street outreach is concentrated near subway stations. About 80 people registered so far.

We participate in the Thursday candlelight protests in Cheonggye Plaza. Many people still hesitate about coming out to the demonstrations or don't have anyone to come out with. Workers March provides a space where members can go out to the streets holding a friend’s hand and chant together for the president’s resignation. In addition to the Thursday protests, 20-30 of our members have been participating in the large manifestations every Saturday, as well as having a time afterwards to reflect and discuss the day’s events and plan for future actions.

What has been the reaction of workers to your campaign?

I thought that it would be much harder to get support from workers because our campaign asks them to act such as by participating in a protest. And in fact there was no reaction at the first and second day. We switched things up a little bit to become more approachable and as a result 20 people registered giving us their contact information and a donation. While the majority of people didn’t actively support our campaign, the more important thing was that many people listened to what we were saying. We are providing a space for collective action to workers that usually are simply focused on their immediate needs and interest. This campaign even provides an opportunity to reenergize Together Labor members who prepared and participate in the campaign.

Most people who registered joined during the big demonstration on Nov. 12th where more than 1 million participated. These 1 million citizens are also workers eager to change the society furious and discontent about the elite and the Park-Choi scandal.

What was the most memorable moment in the campaign?One of our members worked at Seoul Metro. Last Thursday, he brought with him all the members who work with him. Among these members, there were a 28-year old and 29-year old indefinite contract workers who entered into the company in 2014, and a 39-year-old who recently became a regular worker from the outsourcing company. Being with them, I felt that this was a struggle of all the people against a corrupt government. One of them said, “I was very upset at the TV news, some of that fury was released a little bit after participating in the protest. I came here today because my coworker asked me to come, but in the future, I think I will come out here for myself.” I made a decision that we should make more space in which workers could join us more easily.

To recap, workers are ready for a space where they participate in daily life and where they can join in collective action.

Yes. Small protests of 500-1000 provide a space to share and hear people’s feelings on the spot. They are usually also more lively because because they are based on the free speech. Last Thursday, there was the nationwide College Scholastic Aptitude Test. About 200 students that finished the test participated. People can decide whether or not to come out to these small protests on their own. The KCTU stated that unions should participate daily in the candlelight protests. But it is unrealistic for a trade union to join every day. In that way, it is very meaningful for Workers’ March to open such a space.

Let’s shift topic. Workers have been fought against the labor policies of Park’s government and recently the public sector’ went on strike against the performance based salary and termination system. In that regard, a protest of more than 1 million people seems to be an explosion of the accumulated fury of workers and others towards the government including as regards the Choi Soon-sil political scandal. Of Park’s labor policies, what was the most crucial threat to the workers?

Recently workers from the public sector went on strike. KORAIL workers are going on their 60 day of strike. The performance based salary termination system is one of the labor market flexibility policies, which pit workers against each other and making it easier to layoff people that a company can’t control. It is very threatening to workers. However, personally, I think the most crucial Park labor reform is replacing regular workers with irregular ones. They say that it’s for job flexibility, but in fact it is to expand irregular jobs. The context was the same as the performance based salary termination system. The government has been pushing to ratify these reforms since last year, but KCTU’s general strike and the ruling party failure in the last general election has given it a death sentence. At the second all people’s action on Nov. 12, 150,000 workers participated. It was one of the biggest manifestations in recent years.  It reflects both organizing power and the workers’ fury to the labor reform law and the performance based salary and termination system.

In conclusion, we could say that Park’s labor policies are very neoliberal, and the recent worker’s struggle is also the struggle against neoliberalism. In this situation what do you want to tell workers in other countries?

I have heard that the militancy of Korea’s labor movement has gotten the attention from movements in other countries. In particular, the 1987 Workers’ Great Struggle and 1996-7 struggle against the labor reform law were historic since workers were standing up and fighting against neoliberalism. I think the workers’ struggle is also the same. Now the struggle started from the corrupt relationship between Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil, but it is, fundamentally, a problem about the back-scratching alliance between government and business. Conglomerates who provided a few billions to Park and Choi earned trillions in profit. For example, Samsung donated 20.4 billion won to Choi’s Mire Foundation and K-Sports. However, the profits Samsung made last year was 26 trillion won, which is the highest amount in history. The top 30 companies have 700 trillion won in reserves. Park and Choi who were funded by conglomerates got labor reform that facilitates the oppression of workers with such toxic contents as the performance based salary and termination system.

Korean people’s movement have become much more conscious that we are fighting against neoliberalism and capitalism. Therefore, workers and other social sectors are working together in solidarity with others.

by Kim Haesook (Director, International Strategy Center)