Korean Union Leader May be Sentenced to Eight years for Blocking Traffic

by Yi San

Han Sang Gyun

Last week South Korean prosecutors called for an eight-year jail term for Han Sang-gyun, leader of the country’s 800,000-strong independent union federation. The request is outlandish even in a country that was once moving toward democracy but is now rapidly eroding back to authoritarianism.

All eight charges against Han center on traffic and public-safety violations in connection with unauthorized rallies the Korean Confederation of Trade Union (KCTU) called between April and November 2015. The government was forced to use a technicality—traffic violations—to interfere with the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly.

Nevertheless, the prosecution is seeking a heavy jail term. It claims Han attempted to incite violence at a November 14 rally in central Seoul when he yelled, “Let’s advance towards the Presidential Palace.”

The rally indeed turned violent, not because of the tens of thousands of workers and citizens who were protesting two-tier-wage legislation and government austerity measures, but because riot police cordoned off the streets and water-cannoned the otherwise peaceful protesters.

A high-pressure streak of capsaicin solution from a water cannon felled Baek Nam-ki, a 69-year-old farmer activist. Baek remains comatose with irreversible brain damage.

After the rally Han, already wanted on an arrest warrant, took sanctuary at Jogye Buddhist temple, in central Seoul, where he stayed for 24 days before turning himself in to the police. The government summoned about 1,500 other rally participants for investigation.

Elected on a Pledge to Fight

In December 2014 Han was elected KCTU president in the first-ever non-delegate, direct vote in the federation’s 19-year history. He was also the first president elected on a pledge to organize a general strike. “They [the government and business owners] were aiming to annihilate the KCTU, and we had little option but to fight back,” Han said in court June 13, explaining why he had run.

Under Han’s leadership, the KCTU twice called for a general strike. But both calls ended in only symbolic stoppages, adding to a grim picture for South Korean labor.

The country’s unions, once one of the best organized and militant segments of the global labor movement, have suffered a series of setbacks since the late 1990s, when the government made it easier for employers to lay off workers and hire casuals. Fewer than one in 10 workers is now unionized, the country’s lowest level ever, including in the 1970-80s when Korea was under a harsh military dictatorship.

One in seven workers in effect takes home less than the legal minimum wage of about $5.15 an hour, because they are casual workers and thus not fully protected by law.

These defeats, coupled with the ongoing economic recession, have divided union leaders and demoralized members.

Much of the religious establishment, once shelter for political dissidents, has turned a blind eye to labor’s agony. Han initially planned to organize a general strike while in sanctuary at Jogye temple, home to the Buddhist sect that is the country’s largest.

But from day one of Han’s sanctuary, the leadership of the sect, implicated in a series of corruption scandals, quietly mobilized a group of loyalists to evict him. During his 24-day sanctuary, Han often scuffled with these henchmen who, on one occasion, stripped him almost naked.

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McDonald’s Korea Fires Worker for Supporting Global Fast Food Protest

by Paul Garver

 MCD kOREA

Gahyun Lee was dismissed from her job at a McDonald’s outlet in Yeokgok, Gyeonggi Province on September 15 following her visit to Los Angeles earlier that month to support the national action by US fast food workers.

Management had previously warned her about union activity in May – citing a phone call from the head office – after she denounced wage and scheduling manipulation and unsafe workplace practices at a May 15 Seoul rally in support of global fast food workers. Management refused to provide her with an explanation of why her contract was terminated, instead telling her to reapply for the job. Her application was rejected.

The Arbeit Workers’ Union (which organizes precarious workers) is demanding her reinstatement and publicizing her case. You can support them by sending a message to McDonald’s Korea corporate management calling on the company to reinstate Gahyun Lee, recognize union rights and representation and enter into good faith talks with the union over unfair practices.  Go to:

http://www.iuf.org/cgi-bin/campaigns/show_campaign.cgi?c=922

Columbia Free Trade Agreement ?

AFL-CIO Mike Hall. May 17, 2011.

Until Congress acts on renewing an enhanced Trade Adjustment Assistance Act (TAA) for workers who have lost their jobs because of outsourcing, offshoring and unfair trade deals, the Obama administration will not submit three pending trade deals to Congress, the White House announced yesterday.

Capitol Hill observers said Boehner and Republicans held the TAA extension hostage to force a commitment from the Obama administration to send three pending trade deals— Korea, Panama and Colombia—to Congress.

The AFL-CIO has long-backed TAA. In February, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called it a “lifeline for working people trying to get the skills necessary to change careers after their lives have been turned upside down.”

But the AFL-CIO remains firmly opposed to the Colombia, Korea and Panama free trade agreements.

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Divided Unions May Enable Passage of U.S.-Korea Free Trade Treaty

by Paul Garver

For several years unified opposition from the U.S. labor movement and a coalition of environmentalist and global justice groups has blocked passage of “free trade” treaties negotiated by the Bush administration with Korea, Colombia and Panama.

Now the Obama administration has negotiated strategic concessions from Korea for the vehicle assembly and meat processing industries that have persuaded the United Auto Workers (UAW) and United Food & Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) to endorse the revised treaty.

Opponents of “free trade treaties” [more accurately labeled “investor protection treaties”] are concerned that the defection of the UAW and UFCW will enable the Obama administration in 2011 to push through another basically flawed trade agreement on the NAFTA model, thereby winning a dubious “bi-partisan” victory as divisive as Clinton’s enactment of NAFTA.
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Korean Hyundai Workers End Occupation Strike

by Paul Garver

UAW Rally for Korean Hyundai Workers

Ending a one month sit-in strike, subcontracted workers at Hyundai in Korea returned to work and began negotiations with the company. At the heart of the dispute are the workers’ demands for full union rights and to be recognized as permanent workers, in line with a July Korean Supreme Court decision.

Workers of an in-house subcontractor at the Ulsan factory of Hyundai Motor began the sit-in on November 15 after the closure of in-house subcontractor Dongsung Industries, and were supported by sympathy strike actions from subcontracted workers in three other Hyundai plants.
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