On August 5, 2009 workers at the Ssangyong Motor Company in Pyeongtaek, South Korea were defeated in their struggle. For 77 days, workers at the plant fought their employer and eventually the police to preserve their jobs.
Ssangyong was founded in 1954 as Hadonghwan Motor Company, originally making jeeps for the U.S. army. Several ownership changes occurred before the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation bought a controlling share in 2004. At the time of the sale, the plant had 8,700 employees. At the beginning of the strike, only 7,000 remained. In February, 2009 the company filed for bankruptcy. Following the announcement, strikes and job actions appeared at the plant, which erupted into a full scale strike on May 22 with over 1,700 workers occupying the plant. The workers had three demands: No layoffs; no casualizations; no outsourcing.
The occupation held, but by mid-June the company had plans to break the strike. A mass scab rally was organized for June 16, but workers from other plants came to the strikers’ aid. In late June, the company tried a second time, and on July 1, they cut off water in the plant.
The main union federation in Korea, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) held nation-wide rallies in July, but these were poorly organized and attended. On July 20, over 2,000 riot police attacked the plant, which finally led the KCTU to call a 2-day general strike; it should be noted, the KCTU regularly calls general strikes, but as a ritualistic exercise, empty of content
On August 5 the strike ended with the union accepting the company’s “terms.” Over half of the occupiers were laid off, while the rest were essentially suspended with the possibility of being rehired depending on economic conditions. In addition, criminal charges and lawsuits of close to $45 million hang over the heads of the workers. The lessons this struggle provides to the Korean workers, as they lick their wounds and prepare for the next time around, and for others looking from afar, are twofold:
-the trade unions seem the best tool to organize working class solidarity but in fact they prevent it. They organize just enough scattered actions to create the illusion that such solidarity is indeed being strengthened, so that workers don’t do it themselves.
- combativity and determination are not enough. No matter how courageous and inventive workers are, if they cannot spread their struggle, make it into a communal fight for more than just one factory, capital and its state will always be stronger in the end. That is why plant occupations are rarely the most effective form of struggle. Indeed, the beleaguered strikers were literally cut off, isolated. The moments of strength, on the other hand, occurred when strikers rallied outside the plant and were joined by workers from other factories. These are the moments we want to remember the most from this struggle and see remerge in future conflicts.
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