By ISC Media Team
Contributors: Ben Cooper, Dae-Han Song, Kellyn Gross, Taryn Assaf
We are all leaders, not just as a collection of individuals, but as persons embedded in different kinds of institutions and communities of struggle. – Staughton Lynd
On November 9th, the ISC media team met with two women from the JEI workers union, Oh Suyeong and Yeo Minhee. They are union leaders in a six-and-a-half-year struggle against their employer, Jaeneung Educational Institution (JEI). The women’s recent struggle is a symbol of self-sacrifice for the special workers movement—one that is in the spirit of the venerable Jeon Taeil who self-immolated in 1970 on behalf of garment workers.
Suyeong and Minhee are teachers who were hired by JEI to tutor students at home in a range of subjects. Yet JEI doesn’t guarantee teachers their worker rights. The company considers them franchise owners, citing Korean labor law’s classification of “special workers.” Despite this identification, the teachers had organized and won collective-bargaining rights after a month-long protest in 1999.
However, that momentous victory was short-lived. JEI hired a CEO in 2001 who specialized in breaking trade unions. The company pressured members to quit the union in exchange for regular-worker status: those who left the union would be considered employees and not franchise owners. Office workers also pressured union members to quit by telling them that their actions were hurting the company.
The JEI Workers Union had 3,800 members at its height in 2001. Only 100 members remained six years later. In 2007, union leaders agreed to salary cuts proposed by JEI. Rank and file members like Suyeong and Minhee opposed the union’s decision to cut salaries and began organizing. Union leadership who agreed to the salary cuts stepped down, and Suyeong was elected secretary general. She demanded renegotiated wages, but JEI refused and threatened to scrap the union members’ contracts. It was at this juncture that union members began an occupation to gain public attention for their struggle. A makeshift vinyl tent was erected at the foot of JEI headquarters in the Hyehwa District of Seoul in December of that year.
Violence against the occupation started as soon as the tent was set up on the side walk. JEI office workers would attack the occupiers while they were eating dinner. Staff would also dismantle their tent and destroy their belongings. Later, JEI hired a private security company to send people to sexually harass, stalk, and threaten the occupying union members. The union van’s engine was even sabotaged, and Minhee’s car tire had a tiny hole poked in it—nearly resulting in an accident.
Under mounting harassment from company goons, the union sought safer ground and moved their tent to the Seoul City Hall Plaza in November 2010. While the greater public presence ensured their safety for more than two years at the new site, they were no longer visible to JEI’s CEO. They knew that to succeed their struggle needed to be seen by the most powerful in JEI. Suyeong and Minhee subsequently decided to occupy a church bell tower facing JEI headquarters in Hyehwa District this last winter.
Aerial occupations had been a successful tactic for the Korean workers’ movement in the past. In January 2010, the first woman shipyard union representative, Kim Jinsuk, occupied a crane control room at the Hanjin Heavy Industries shipyard in Busan. Hanjin had laid off 170 workers and were planning to lay off 400 more. The former welder knew that an occupation coupled with social media such as Twitter would bring public attention to the layoffs. Her protest even caught the attention of international media, with Al Jazeera covering her story and interviewing a protester at the shipyard. A group called the Hope Bus Riders began street demonstrations in Busan and Seoul in solidarity with Jinsuk’s struggle as well. Hope Bus Riders rallies often involved ordinary citizens, and 15,000 people gathered in Busan during their largest one.
Jinsuk’s occupation was still strong by November, so Hanjin agreed to rehire 94 laid-off workers and give them back-pay. Four hundred workers had made concessions with the company prior to her victory, yet Jinsuk’s efforts demonstrated how individual direct action and persistence could inspire entire movements to fight for worker rights. Emboldened by Jinsuk’s aerial occupation, a second wave of occupations by Ssangyong Motor and Hyundai workers took to the skies. Suyeong and Minhee had been following these aerial occupations closely, and they joined this constellation of struggles by occupying the bell tower in February.
The “sky friends” encouraged and supported each other in spite of their ever-present anxiety of waning public interest. At times, Suyeong and Minhee would face slanderous personal attacks on Internet bulletin boards from JEI employees. Such attacks disheartened them so much that they each contemplated suicide. Despite these hardships, they knew that their struggle was important. They had experienced crimes and violence perpetrated against them by the company. They had seen their union gutted and their friends attacked. These indignities and injustices fueled them during their most trying days.
Self-sacrifice by a few individuals or a single person has often sparked and propelled the Korean social movement. Jeon Taeil’s self-immolation on November 13th, 1970 sparked the Korean labor movement. Taeil was a worker, an organizer, and a martyr. His self-immolation smashed the wall of silence imposed by the Park Chung Hee dictatorship. People who had been inactive or silent about workers’ rights were sparked into action. His own mother, Lee Soseon, would carry on his spirit, organizing workers until her death to earn the moniker “mother of workers.” The two continue to inspire generations of Korean workers.
Likewise, Suyeong’s and Minhee’s aerial occupation has sparked solidarity from others. Artists organized cultural nights, and activists organized the public to participate in solidarity rallies. On August 25, after 2,202 days of occupation and 202 of them in the bell tower, the JEI Workers Union won legal rights as workers and recognition as a trade union with collective bargaining rights. JEI agreed to reinstate the 11 laid off workers who had struggled for six-and-a-half-years—including one woman who had passed away during the struggle. The company also agreed to rewrite the rules concerning penalties for late payments from students and teacher wages being linked to their earnings. This victory lays the foundation for 2.8 million other special workers in Korea to also be recognized as workers. Suyeong and Minhee continue to push for the rights of other temporary special workers, dispatch workers and anyone else who falls through the cracks of Korea’s legal framework. They, like all the occupiers, are driven by justice and workers rights. They are motivated by a need to lead workers to work together, to live and to keep fighting.
Don’t die any more, instead, live and fight. And we will make the world where workers can live as human beings. – Lee Soseon
- Ablaze with the Spirit of Jeon Tae Il: Stories from the Front-lines (solidaritystorieskr.wordpress.com)
- Duipuri- A Short Story (solidaritystorieskr.wordpress.com)