Ablaze with the Spirit of Jeon Tae Il: Stories from the Front-lines

By Dae Han Song

November 9-10 marked the largest annual worker mobilization in Korea, the Worker Day Gathering. It is held in the memory of the 1970 self-immolation of Jeon Tae Il whose actions smashed the wall of silence and exposed the horrid working conditions of Korea’s industrialization. His life of struggle and his self-immolation sparked the Korean labor movement and continues to inspire it. In commemoration of this Worker’s Weekend, the Media Team spent the weekend learning about current workers’ struggles and participating in the Worker Day Gathering and solidarity events.

JEI Dispatch Tutor Workers

1         JEI Workers Minhee Yeo and Suyeong Oh speak about their 2000 days of occupation
and 200 of aerial occupation

The JEI workers victory on August 26th, 2013 marked the first time that “Special Workers” [legally recognized as self-employed freelancers (e.g. golf caddies, insurance sales people)] were recognized as employees and given the right to collective bargaining. Despite legal, mental, and physical harassment by JEI corporate employees and hired thugs, the struggle of the dispatch tutors persisted through 6 winters, spanning 2202 days making it the longest occupation in Korea and possibly the world. In the last 202 days, two of the occupiers, Minhee Yeo and Suyeong Oh, elevated the struggle by occupying a 15 meter church bell tower facing the JEI headquarters. On August 26th, they finally came down after their union was recognized and the fired workers reinstated.

 Samsung Trade Union Struggle and Cho, Chong Beom

 2A Media Team member paying his respects to Choi, Chong Beom
in a shrine inside the KCTU building

Choi, Chong Beom took his life in protest on October 31, 2013. He was a Samsung Electronics Service technician for four years. He was targeted for harassment and his workload and pay cut after joining the Samsung Trade Union. The Samsung Trade Union is seeking union recognition and collective bargaining. Samsung is notorious as a union-hostile company and continues in its attempts to dismantle the union. The struggle for recognition and collective bargaining continues.

 The Ssangyong Motor Workers Struggle and the Catholic Priests Association for Justice

3 A shrine for the 24 people that died due to
stress related illness or by taking their own lives

On May 22nd, 2009, after 6 months of unpaid wages, planned mass layoffs, and the company’s unwillingness to negotiate, Ssangyong Motor Workers Union (a branch of the National Metal Workers Union) occupied a Ssanyong Motor Paint factory. Despite the brutal police and company hired thug repression, the occupation lasted 77 days and ended with a settlement in which 48% of the 974 “redundant” workers were promised unpaid leave (with the promise of future reinstatement) or be transferred to sales positions, and the remaining 52% would be given voluntary resignation or shifted to spin-off companies. However, the company has failed to honor its deal prompting the union to begin an aerial occupation of an electric pylon near the factory on November 20, 2012. The aerial occupation ended on May 9, 2013 due to severe health deterioration of the occupiers. The occupation continues in front of the Ssangyong Motor Company factory in Pyongtaek.

[For an 18 minute documentary of the Ssangyong Motor Union occupation
part 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1JMGTzZDiM and
part 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtwkqGgkxoc]

 4A Ssangyong Auto Worker bares the demands on his back:

Let’s return to the factory!
President Park, Keep Your Promise of a Parliamentary Investigation!
Re-instate laid-off Ssangyong Auto Workers!
Regularize Irregular Workers!

5 Priests of the Catholic Priest Association for Justice hold their 217th mass for the resolution
 of the Ssangyong Motor Workers Struggle and for Laid-off Workers

The Catholic Priests Association for Justice held a mass every day at 6:30 PM at Daehan Gateacross the street from the Seoul City Hall Plaza, for the Ssangyong Motor Workers and all laid-off workers. The Catholic Priest Association for Justice first started in protest of the Yushin Constitution during the Park Chung Hee dictatorship in the 1970s and continued on the democratization struggle. They are actively involved in various struggles including the Gangjeong Village struggle against the Naval Base. The CPAJ “takes to the streets, alongside the poor and the oppressed, for their liberation.” On November 18, 2013 amidst tears and reminiscing they concluded their final daily mass, their 225th one.

 Jeon Tae Il

6 Jeon Tae Il sacrificed himself in self-immolation            

7Chrysantheums, incense, and soju offerings
at Pyung Hwa (Peace) Market                     

Jeon Tae Il came from poverty. At the age of 16, he began work in the textile sweatshops of the Peace Market. As he experienced and witnessed the horrid working conditions, he fought to improve conditions in four ways: “First, he became a cutter [a type of de-facto manager] and used his position to try to take care of the young factory workers; a kind-hearted approach. Second, having investigated the conditions in the Peace Market he appealed to the Ministry of Labour, demanding that they ensure the Labour Standards Law was implemented. Third, he conceived the notion to establish a model business in which the Labour Standards Law would be observed. Fourth, he protested and struggled actively against the oppressive forces that opposed the reform of working conditions; this is the strategy he opted for in the autumn of 1970.” His self-immolation shattered the media blockade and sparked public outrage and protest. The Worker Day Gathering is held in the memory of Jeon Tae Il’s sacrifice. His biography “A Single Spark” can be downloaded at http://www.kdemo.or.kr/eng/book/data/8301

 The Great Worker Gathering

     8    Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU)            

9  Jeon Tae Il watches over the workers
join in the Worker’s Day Gathering

On October 24th, the government outlawed the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU). The government accused the KTU of breaking the law because it refused to exclude, from its 60,000 membership, 22 teachers fired (by the previous conservative Lee Administration) for taking political stances: in Korea, government employees are not allowed to take political stances. Delegalization means that the union would not be able to negotiate with school authorities and that billions of won of government support would be lost: in Korea, the employer, in this case the government, is mandated to pay the costs of the union. After a fierce struggle by the KTU and supporters, the government has postponed delegalization until next year. The KTU is fighting to maintain its union recognition.

10 Fighting Against the Legal and Social Order Boundaries

 11“Do Not Cross this Legal and Social Order Line”

Since the 1997 IMF crisis, labor flexibilization has created a vulnerable irregular labor force (i.e. workers hired on an annual basis) and labor law amendments have divided worker power by allowing multiple unions, including false pro-company unions. This has dealt a grave blow to Korea’s labor movement. The central theme of this year’s Worker Day Gathering was breaking through the legal and social order boundaries that stifle, constrict, and debilitate the labor movement. For a full list of the translated demands: https://solidaritystorieskr.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/workers-day-gathering-november-910-demands-and-slogans/

12 Samsung Workers Marching Holding Choi, Cheong Beom portraits and pickets that read:
“Samsung Guarantee the Rights of Worker Unions to Organize”

Choi, Chong Beom, the Samsung Service worker, joined Jeon Tae Il and the countless martyrs – their spirits present in the gathering. Choi, Chong Beom’s final note read:

“I, Choi, Chong Beom have suffered greatly working at Samsung Service. I couldn’t live because I was so hungry. Seeing those around me suffering was hard. So, while I cannot do like Jeon Tae Il did, I too have chosen his path. I hope that it helps.”


One thought on “Ablaze with the Spirit of Jeon Tae Il: Stories from the Front-lines

  1. Pingback: 2,202 Days | solidarity stories

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