Building Worker’s Hope

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By Hwang Jeongeun(General Secretary, ISC)

For many years, the International Strategy Center has been building solidarity by visiting sites of struggle and informing the world about them. This year, we are starting the Uncovering Alternatives project to go beyond resistance and towards building “another world” by exploring Korea’s experiments and alternatives and sharing them with those in Korea and abroad.

Our first alternative case study is “Workers become owners.” At a time when workers are simply appendages to machines or just the arms and legs of management, we researched various cases of workers participating in management and decision making as protagonists. As a concrete domestic case, we researched workers’ self-management and visited Woojin Bus, a bus company democratically managed and run for 13 years by its 300 workers. Our goal is to write an English report based on our  research and visit. To launch our new project, we would like to explore workers’ self-management and share impressions from our visit to Woojin.

In 2016, there was an article 1 about a survey of 110 elementary school students asking what word they associated with “working” and “workers”. The result was shocking. Half of them came up with words such as “difficulty” and some even answered “slaves.” Symbolically, it reflected not only how “working” and “workers” are perceived, but also the treatment that they witnessed in our society.

Statistics reveal the reality of such perceptions. Currently, 8.4 million (as of March 2016) are irregular workers (about 50% of the work force). Low income workers make up 25%. Korea is one of the countries where employment instability is most present. Furthermore, only 12% of workers are organized in trade unions, so workers’ voices are hardly heard 2. Under these conditions, workers cannot be owners of the work they do. Why should workers be owners? Where is this being realized?

In workers’ self-management, workers participate in management, operation, and distribution. In a workers’ self-managed firm, workers decide what is to be produced and for whom, what products should be prioritized, define who gets what, where and how, and safeguard employment 3. After independence from Japan in 1945, Korean workers confiscated and self-managed factories and mines from the Japanese owners and managers that had left. However, a few weeks after, the US military arrived and took ownership and management from the workers. Thus, workers’ self-management was short-lived in Korea. Starting 2000, workers’ self-managed companies emerged again in Korea. One of the successful cases has been Woojin Bus.

The transformation to a worker-run company began after union members went on general strike for six months due to unpaid wages. As part of the settlement package ending the strike, ownership of the company was transferred to workers who turned it into a workers’ self-managed company. It’s now been 13 years. Despite internal conflicts at the beginning and some workers even leaving, Woojin is now stabilized. They overcame their limitations by educating workers on the values of self-management and by carrying out participatory programs encouraging workers to be owners. Nonetheless, other challenges remain such as other conventional competing bus companies that are uncooperative and blame Woojin Bus for lowering their profits. Workers at Woojin have grown complacent and irresponsible with the stability. They are trying to find a way to addressing these issues and to make workers’ self-management more commonplace in the near future.

Our Uncovering Alternatives team members reflected on their visit:

It was interesting to learn about the internal struggles and divisions among the laborers themselves, some in support of a worker self-management model and some not. The CEO was humble and forthcoming with his answers, expressing respect for the current employees while revealing that some of the previous ones had spread rumors about his business practices before they quit. After many people quit, it was only through sacrificing months of pay that the workers were able to save the company. However, nowadays the company works hard to maintain enlightened workers who take responsibility for their work. Nowadays the company provides training every six months for employees to remind them that hard work is still necessary to keep the business afloat. One of the most impressive aspects of the interview was learning that a board comprised of 5 workers decides the annual budget, including the CEO’s salary, and a general assembly of workers votes on the proposed budget, proving that a democratic process can work in a business.

Of course, no company is perfect. In the future, I hope to see a more diverse workforce represented at Woojin (currently there are no foreigners and only 8 women out of 319 employees). In addition, the company should have anti-discrimination policies in place as well as an independent system for complaints. However, it was still inspiring to see a company which values people over profits, and which can serve as a model in that regard for a new generation of companies.

– Andrea Schnitzer

As I entered Woojin Bus building, I felt something different. Not even “Make a company’s hope true”, but “Make workers’ hope true”. The phrase is not easy to find in companies in Korea. With the surprising first impression, we went to interview the president of Woojin Bus. Here again, I couldn’t believe what I heard from him.

“You had better interview with our workers because they are the ones who do all the work.”

I had never expected to hear such words from the president of a company. While we were interviewing him, he showed how much he respected the workers.

When we had lunch with the workers, I had a chance to talk to some of them. One of them said it is an honor to work for Woojin. Another was going to play table tennis after lunch with big smile on his face. He said he is a member of table tennis club within the company. I thought majority of people who are working in a company would want to leave as soon as possible, but it is different here. People show the sign of satisfaction. I could feel it. I even thought that I could gladly work gladly here and that I would be respected. Isn’t this a company where people are put first?

– Bae Kyung-jin

** The report will be completed in August and available in  our website or by request at iscenter2015@gmail.com

Notes:

  1. [노동이 부끄러워요?]“노동 생각하면 노예 떠올라···내 꿈은 노동자가 아니에요”, 경향 신문, 2016.04.28 http://news.khan.co.kr/kh_news/khan_art_view.html?artid=201604281745001 
  2. 비정규직 규모와 실태(통계청, ‘경제활동인구조사 부가조사’(2016.3)결과), 김유선(한국노동사회연구소 선임연구위원/노동시장연구센터 소장) 
  3. http://www.workerscontrol.net/authors/worker-self-management-historical-perspective