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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Hitting the self-destruct button

A devastating scandal in one of Korea’s major unions has been rumbling on for a couple of weeks now. Basically, union leaders at Kia’s massive car plant in Kwangju, Chôlla Province were found to have been doing deals with management over who should be employed in the plant with the usual envelopes of money changing hands all round. Quite a bit has been written about this at Oh My News and elsewhere, which, to be absolutely honest I haven’t had time to read yet, but you can if you like. (other articles in English: Joongang Ilbo, Hankyoreh editorial)

Antti has said that he will write something about this and so I will await his (much better-informed) post with baited breath…

In the meantime I'll make one or two observations. More than anything else, this scandal seems to demonstrate the dangers that face the workers’ movement (and social movements in general) in a country like Korea where petty corruption and clientilism are the norm. The important issue for organisations like unions, NGOs and of course, perhaps most importantly, parties like the Democratic Labour Party (민노당) is how to avoid getting sucked into this world, because the pull must be very strong. Getting co-opted into the existing system, either officially and legally, or unofficially and illegally (as in this case) must really spell the beginning of the end for progressive unions.

Fortunately, on a slightly more positive note I am confident that the vast majority of ordinary rank and file unionists in South Korea are upstanding types who know where their priorities lie. I’m also sure that the workers’ movement as a whole there is robust enough to withstand the odd storm. Let's remember that it has a lot of work to do - a recent report found that South Korean workers do the longest hours of any OECD nation and despite advances they still get paid wages at the lower end of the scale (Koreans apparently work an average of 2390 hours per year as compared to European averages of between 1300 and 1700).


At February 02, 2005 1:23 PM, Blogger Antti Leppänen said...

Don't hold your breath any more, because my "Bad week for Korean labor" post has been in a draft stage for too long by now...

One thing which doesn't seem to have received so much attention but which has been very detrimental for the unity (if there's ever been much) of the DLP and the party atmosphere was the decision to recall the decision to rescind the party membership of two persons in a party position who last year in a party event had hit and kicked a woman, thrown ashtray at her and threatened her with a broken bottle.
Jin Jung-kwon, who's usually worth reading, writes about the current state of DLP in his Kyunghyang column: 진보정당이 ‘원칙’을 무너뜨리면…(Hankyoreh21 also had a large piece on DLP just recently.)

I'm afraid I can't be as optimistic as you concerning the labor movement; it's just that capital is overpowering labor so much everywhere. (And this is a habitual soc.dem. voter speaking here, watching the things unfold very close to me.) The proportion of organized labor in Korea is something like 11%; I'm not saying in the Chosun Ilbo kind of "you are not representative of workers, so kkabulji mara, but the prospects of a wide representative labor movement just don't seem good. (At the time of government-controlled unions the unionization was much higher.)
There was a debate in Pressian about the polarization (?, yangkûkhwa) of the labor market some time ago; I thought I had made a note on it, but I couldn't find it.

Now I'll go and finish my note about the shift in the political support of the self-employed.

At February 02, 2005 2:04 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

Thanks Antti. I'm disappointed your post won't get to see the light of day...

Thanks very much for the links on the DLP, I'm thinking of working on a project with a friend that will compare the DLP with the PT in Brazil, so all sources are useful.

I suppose my grounds for optimism (I can tell you that I'm not habitually much of an optimist...) are that Korean society is still very unstable and the ruling class hasn't yet got a grip on how to fully co-opt the working class (I mean that term in the broadest sense). Koreans do not have the weight of a hundred years of social democracy on their brains as we do in Europe and sudden explosions of anger and militancy are possible, often seemingly coming from nowhere. Another thing to bear in mind is that the labour movement has not yet suffered a significant defeat in Korea. Yes there are setbacks, low-level co-option, corruption, small defeats, even stagnation maybe. But all this is different to a full-scale, all round demoralising defeat like those suffered by the labour movements around Europe in the late 70s, early 80s (the obvious example in Britain being the 1984-5 Miners' Strike).


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