Korean Workers (Review)

Posted January 9, 2002

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Korea

Hagen Koo, Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001)

Korean workers broke into the international headlines in August 1987 when tens of thousands of Hyundai employees poured into the streets of the South Korean industrial city Ulsan, demanding increased wages and independent unions.   The authoritarian regime in South Korea was already on its last legs.  Largely as a result of student-led protests, the Chun Doo Hwan government had agreed to democratic reforms that June.   Although workers didn’t play an organized role in the democratization struggle, the Hyundai protests ensured that Korean democracy would reach the workplace as well as the halls of government.

The Korean labor movement was not born in 1987, as University of Hawaii sociology professor Hagen Koo demonstrates in provocative detail in his recent book Korean Workers.  But the labor movement that percolated in South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s was very different from the one that emerged after 1987.  Despite outside perceptions of a militant labor movement, workers organized relatively few actions from the 1960s to the mid-1980s: fewer than 100 a year.  These earlier struggles were led primarily by women.  Later, in the late 1970s, students played a key role in labor organizing.  Until 1987, though, the international media routinely ignored this ground swell.

One key characteristic connects the two generations of union struggle, however.  According to Koo, workers in Korea did not create a social movement.  They tended to focus on working conditions in their own particular workplace or industry and did not try to link with other movements for economic justice.  The contrast with Poland’s Solidarity is instructive.  What began as a labor protest over a single crane operator in the shipyards of Gdansk grew into a social movement encompassing approximately one quarter of the Polish population.  As a result, Solidarity today remains both a strong union and an important political player in Poland.  In South Korea, the Labor Party is weak, and while the trade unions cooperate with social movements, the links are not strong.

Koo describes many of the barriers to unionism in Korea, from the absence of an artisan tradition to the paternalism fostered by a deeply ingrained Confucian ethic.  Despite these barriers, courageous individuals managed to keep independent unionism alive in very dark days.  The early history is filled with examples like Chun Tae-Il, the tailor who immolated himself in 1970 to protest the government’s refusal to address the inhumane working conditions in the textile industry.  Women workers, who put in long hours for little pay and sacrificed their youth in cramped and dangerous factories, attempted to form some of the first independent unions.  Like the Russian narodniki of the 19th century, Korean students “went to the people” in the 1970s by taking factory jobs and attempting to “raise consciousness.”  Many remained in the movement to become key officials in today’s independent unions.

These individuals, after twenty years of struggle, scored two significant victories.  Their efforts boosted Korean wages and forced the Korean government and chaebols to distribute the fruits of industrialization more equitably.  Second, they put together sufficient muscle to pressure the Korean government indirectly to usher in democracy in 1987.  Although the major labor protests didn’t come until after government’s about-face, the Korean authorities were reportedly worried that workers would swell the democratization movement if a compromise wasn’t found.

While Koo documents these macro trends, his sociology background enables him to portray the deeper changes in Korean society wrought by the labor movement.  To resist authority in a Confucian society is difficult.  Where protest is permissible, it is usually intellectuals who lead the way (students, for example, or dissidents such as Kim Dae Jung).  When workers challenged the power structure, however, the Confucian system was turned on its head.  The early activists had to overcome a great deal of social stigma, not only generated by the government and the official media, but from their own very families.  At the Daewoo strike in June 1985, “some agitated fathers broke into the room where strikers were and took their daughters away, pulling them by the hair.  After the strike ended, the workers recollected that, other than enduring hunger, their parents’ reaction was the most difficult thing to endure during the strike.”  The labor movement prompted other challenges to the Confucian order, for instance by giving voice to women and accelerating the development of the Korean women’s movement.

The Korean trade movement story didn’t end with the 1987 protests.  The two main union confederations joined hands in 1996 for a hugely successful general strike that forced the government to back away from key anti-labor legislation.  But the failure of Korean unions to become true social movements has had a corrosive effect.  Koo reports that according to his discussions with both union and company officials at Hyundai, rank-and-rile unionists there have “become increasingly pragmatic, individualist, selfish and apolitical.”  Women workers, who led the early struggles and are now the first fired during economic downturns, are suffering disproportionately from the neo-liberal restructuring of Korean industry.  Today, unions in Korea are on the defensive, challenged by the forces of conservatism and globalization.  Even the Kim Dae Jung administration, progressive though its foreign policy may be, has cracked down on union protests and shown little understanding of workers’ rights.

Despite the current obstacles to organizing, Korean workers are in a much better bargaining position today than twenty or thirty years ago, thanks to the sacrifices of past activists.  The story of Korean workers is a story of overcoming han, the sense of deep injustice that many Koreans feel.  Against great odds, workers achieved a measure of human dignity.   Corporate greed, union bureaucracy, and government resistance cannot take this thrilling victory away from those who built the Korean economic miracle with their hands, their minds, and the best years of their lives.

Korean Quarterly, Summer 2002

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