Saturday, June 27, 2009

For over a month workers at Ssangyong Motors in Pyeongtaek, South Korea have been occupying their factory to protest against "restructuring" ie massive layoffs. Today, after many threats, the South Korean police moved in to evict the workers "with maximum prejudice". No doubt this is a defeat, but it has lessons that can be learned. First of all the plant occupation was the only way to apply pressure on management and the political authorities. Any other course would have led to what was basically complete capitulation. Yet the occupation was insufficient. Why ? First of all the union involved was not willing to "go far enough". Rather than call for an outpouring of solidarity, both local and international, the union seemed content to keep the factory occupation isolated. As the following article from the British LibCom site points out this may be a rather common response amongst union bureaucrats worldwide. To say the least workers who engage in such tactics anywhere in the world in the future will have to take note, and build their own rank and file mechanisms of solidarity, rather than depend on official unions that are often compromised. The workers involved did indeed build their own solidarity networks, as the following article points out, but they were insufficient, and they point to the need for even greater efforts on this line in the future.

Secondly, there was no consideration of actually resuming production under workers' self management, as has been done in other places in such situations. Maybe such a goal is unrealistic in the case of an auto plant, but it should be a primary consideration in many other occupations. It has been in some. Even if such a tactic doesn't lead to a fully cooperative workplace, displacing the previous management, it is an even more effective bargaining chip than a simple workplace occupation. Like the prospect of hanging such a move to expropriation "concentrates the mind" of management like nothing else can.

Here's the background to the strike from the LibCom website.
Pyeongtaek strike continues in South Korea:
A strike now completing its fourth week at Ssangyong Motors in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, remains a standoff as of this writing. The strike echoes in many ways the dynamic seen in the recent Visteon struggle in the UK and in battles over auto industry restructuring around the world. Involving, on the other hand, an outright factory seizure and occupation, and preparation for violent defense of the plant if necessary, it is the first struggle of its kind in South Korea for years.
Loren Goldner
(June 19)
The company was taken over three years ago by China’s Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, which holds 51% ownership. At the time, the Pyeongtaek plant had 8700 employees; it now has 7000. In February the company filed for bankruptcy, proposing a restructuring and offering the Pyeongtaek plant as collateral for further loans to re-emerge from bankruptcy. The court approved the bankruptcy plan, pending adequate layoffs to make the company profitable again.

The management strategy seems to have been a long-term whittling down of personnel combined with acquisition of technology for operations in China. Since the Shanghai Automotive takeover, there has been no new investment at Ssangyong Motors, and no new car model launched. (Korean prosecutors have raised questions over the legality of the technology transfer to China, since the technology in question was developed with Korean government subsidies, but to date no legal action has been taken.)

Workers at the plant responded with strikes against pending layoffs in April which accelerated into a full strike and plant takeover and occupation by 1700 workers on May 27 when the list of workers to be laid off was announced. The strike focused on three main demands: 1) no layoffs 2) job security for all and 3) no outsourcing. The company wants to force 1700 workers into early retirement and has fired 300 casuals.

The Ssangyong workers are organized in the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU) and have worked an average of 15-20 years in the factory. A regular worker earns a base pay of approximately 30,000,000 won (currently ca. $25,000) per year; a casual earns about 15,000,000 for the same work. (In Korea, the base pay is only part of the salary, which includes benefits –for regular workers—as well as significant overtime paid at a higher rate, often 10 hours a week and accepted, or even desired, by most workers as a necessary income supplement.)

As of mid-June, about 1000 workers were continuing the occupation, with wives and families providing food. About 500 workers not slated for layoff are staying at home, and about 1000 supervisory staff are scabbing, mainly maintaining machines, while no cars have been produced since the occupation began.

There has been to date little mass police presence in Pyeongtaek. This is due at least in part to to the current political crisis in South Korea following the recent suicide of ex-president No Mu Hyeon and subsequent large-scale demonstrations expressing growing outrage against the current right-wing government of Lee Myong Bak, demonstrations that are expected to gain momentum into July. The Lee government, elected in December 2007 on a program of high economic growth and now discredited by the world crisis, has been taken aback by the depth of outrage revealed in demonstrations mobilizing up to 1 million people. After the unleashing of riot police provoked further outrage and brought more people to the streets, the government is unwilling to risk further disenchantment by an assault on the Pyeongtaek factory.

On June 16, a large anti-strike rally of more than 1500 people was held outside the factory gates. The rally was attended by the 1000 supervisory scabs, 200 hired thugs and 300 workers not on the layoff list and not supporting the strike. 400 riot police stood by, doing nothing, and finally declared the scab assembly illegal.

During the scab rally, about 700-800 workers from nearby factories, such as the Kia Motor company, came to defend the Ssangyang plant, in part in response to a text message tree of the KMWU.

The occupying workers have made plans for armed defense against any police attempt to recapture the plant, stocking iron pipes and Molotov cocktails. As a further fallback plan, they intend to concentrate in the paint department, where the flammable materials (in their estimate) will dissuade the police from firing tear gas canisters and setting off a conflagration.
According to one activist critical of the role of the union, the KMWU seems to remain in control of the strike. 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 has thus far supported the illegal actions of seizing the plant and preparing for its armed defense. On the other hand, it has been concentrating on the demand for no layoffs and soft-pedaling the demands for job security for all and against out-sourcing.

The core occupation of the plant is powered by 50 or 60 rank-and-file groups of 10 workers each, who in turn elect a delegate (chojang) for coordinated action. According to the same critical activist, these chojang are the most combative and class-conscious workers.

The outcome of this strike remains up in the air. It benefits from a momentarily favorable political climate, which has put the Korean government on the back foot, but it is up against the deep crisis of the world auto industry and the world economic crisis generally. The nearby Kia Motor Company plant is itself in the middle of critical negotiations for crisis measures, and GM-Daewoo is being hit with the world reorganization of GM. The company strategy, as in the case of Visteon, seems to be at best slow attrition (already underway since 2006) or even an outright closing of the plant. The Ssangyong Motor struggle may light a fire in the Korean auto industry and beyond, or, more likely, be strangled, slowly or not so slowly, in its current isolation.
The following news item is from the business news website 'Trading Markets.Com'. If there is anything positive to be taken from these developments is that obviously the company's hired goons lost against the workers when they attempted to retake the plant. In the end the company had to resort to the police.
PYEONGTAEK, Jun 26, 2009 Hundreds of riot police on Friday entered the premises of ailing Ssangyong Motor Co's only plant, south of Seoul, to disperse striking unionized workers waging a weeks-long sit-in in protest over the company's massive layoff plan, police and company officials said.

Some 500 police troops with helmets and plastic shields began streaming into the plant shortly after 5 p.m. to disband the striking Ssangyong workers estimated to number about 900, the officials said.

Hours earlier, about 300 security guards hired by company management were sent into the plant complex to confront with the striking employees, with witnesses reporting a number of injuries as the two groups faced off.

Unionized workers at Ssangyong who were laid off after the troubled automaker was put under court receivership earlier this year have waged a sit-in at the company's factory in Pyeongtaek, about 70 kilometers south of Seoul.

They have been locked in a dispute with other workers whose jobs have been saved as a result of the company-wide restructuring plan. (More like a dispute with company management-Molly)

Earlier in the day, the company's management proposed to rehire some of the laid-off workers once the company turns itself around, but the proposal was immediately rejected by the union.

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