Crying former Ssangyong Motors workers … Court ruled in favor of 153 laid-off workers

Korean labor movement gains victory with Supreme Court ruling


Disclaimer: The following is a totally personal translation of an article appeared in The Kyunghyang Shinmun on Feb. 7, 2014, reporting a court ruling invalidating the 2009 mass layoff by Ssangyong Motors which claimed 24 lives and caused ever-reverberating social conundrums in Korea since. If upheld in Supreme Court, it will pave the way that those laid-off workers can go back to the company which has showed solid performance recently. All rights regarding this post stay with the author(s) of the original article or with The Kyunghyang Shinmun and this post will be scrapped immediately at their request. In the post, I tried to match the English translation of names of people / institution(s) / position(s) to authentic one(s) as much as possible but, unfortunately, some of them still can be different. Original article of this post (in Korean) can be found in previous link.

By Hong-doo Park, Soon-jae Kwon…

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2,202 Days

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.

Speaking with Suyoung and Minhee

ISC media team speaking with Oh Suyoung and Yeo Minhee

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.

kim jinsook

Kim Jinsuk atop the crane during her occupation, Busan

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.

Jeon Tae-Il

Jeon Tae-Il


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


lee seoseon

Lee Seoseon, the “mother of workers”


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 and
part 2]

 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

 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:

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.”

South Korean workers fight to Stop Ssangyong Motor Worker Deaths- VIDEO

From youtube:

With extreme repressive force by the South Korean government to suppress what had been a peaceful sit-in strike asking for dialogue over alternatives to mass redundancy dismissals at Ssangyong Motor in 2009,
-some 3000 workers were pushed out of the plant by restructuring and disciplinary dismissal,
-over 100 workers imprisoned, with strike leader Han Sang Kyun still imprisoned today and
-now 22 suicides and other early deaths among the Ssangyong Motor worker and family members affected by the illegitimate mass redundancy dismissals, which the company justified by doctoring its accounting books.

Though Indian transnational corporation MAHINDRA, which has taken over Ssangyong Motor, has the power to stop a 23rd death from arising, Mahindra has made no real effort to resolve the issue of the Ssangyong Motor dismissed workers.

The Ssangyong Motor workers’ struggle continues!