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KCTU to call for second general strike in South Korea

by BASE21 Saturday, Mar. 16, 2002 at 7:55 PM

On March 15, on the 19th day of the unprecedented strike of electricity workers, KCTU held an emergency Leaders Council to initiate a process for the second solidarity general strike.

On March 15, on the 19th day of the unprecedented strike of electricity workers, KCTU held an emergency Leaders Council to initiate a process for the second solidarity general strike.

The decision to call for general strike comes as the government stubbornly refuses to address the demands of the striking workers to end the privatisation plan. KCTU leadership is concerned that the government is now committed to allow a breakdown in electricity supply in a hope to seize a favourable environment to attack the striking workers instead of working towards a genuine resolution.

The KCTU's call for the second solidarity general strike is comes as the 'game plan' of the government to bulldoze through the privatisation plan and to crush and eliminate any impediment arising from the demands and actions of the trade union movement became more obvious in the last few days.

Government Ready to Unleash Unimaginable Attack on Striking Workers

On the 18th day of the power workers' strike, the Korean government announced a plan to deploy military personnel to run the operator-depleted electricity generation facilities. The "Statement to the Nation Concerning the Strike by Electricity Workers Union" by Shin Kook-hwan, the Minister for Commerce, Industry and Energy reiterated two principles the government has stuck with, namely, "crime must be punished" and "no let up in privatisation".

The "no more talk, prepare for the worst" statement contained a message appealing for 'people's cooperation' to help the government avoid unprecedented 'power blackout': "we call on people to step up activities like 'switch off" to lower electricity consumption.

Minister Shin's statement was described by the media as "a statement rejecting any negotiation with the union to uphold the principle of privatisation" and an expression of the commitment to "push ahead with privatisation even if it causes discomfort to the people". The statement was received as a demonstration of government's position to the striking workers and an effort to prepare people to the prospect of power blackout which looms ever more ominously as the strike shows no sign of wilting under the government's religious commitment to privatisation and militaristic and paternalistic attitude towards its engagement with the trade unions.

The statement was accompanied by various measures by the government, the management of the 5 power companies, the Prosecutors Office, and police.

Management Behaviour

The 5 power companies have extended their legal action against the union and the striking workers. In addition to the initial legal charge against 52 persons, and 192 persons in the second batch, the management has now, as of March 13, increased the total number of unionists they have sued to 763. This amounts to 13.6% of unionists out of a total of 5,609 members.

At the same time, the management has filed for court injunction on the liquid assets of union leaders and members. On top of the March 9 application to for the court order to freeze the bank accounts, wages, and retirement pension allowance 49 leaders, the management has announced on March 14 to extend the injunction to all the union members who 'refuse to return to work'. The injunction is to obtain 15 billion won of workers assets to meet what the management has calculated to be the accumulated losses and damages, as of March 13 since the eruption of the strike.

The management is hastening the recruitment of new staff to replace the striking workers, by lowering the requirement of 2-year work experience in electricity generation sector to 1 year. They will be complemented by some 500 military personnel who have knowledge of handling power generation. They will be given brief training before being assigned to operate the generation facility.

Prosecutors Charge Up for Action

The prosecutorial authority has also begun to "get into the act". The Public Security Department of the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office began investigation into "accusation cases" (cases opened by the petition from the victim seeking criminal punishment against the alleged offender) against 442 power workers' union raised by the five electricity companies. On March 14, it announced a plan to summon all of the 442 unionists "sued" by the electricity companies.

A Prosecutors Office spokesperson declared, "the strike by the Korean Power Industry Union is illegal strike that pursues demands which cannot be subject to industrial dispute as stipulated in the law." The Prosecutors Office, which is "vested with sole authority and responsibility for carrying out criminal investigations" and the power to direct and instruction police investigation activities, has set out to "apprehend" the 24 union leaders against whom "arrest warrant" has been issued, announced its plan to call in all the persons named in the companies' "accusation" for investigation.

The prosecutorial activities are expected to follow a guideline which calls for arrest and detention (for investigation) of all the union members who have "agitated", "masterminded" the illegal strike and those who have systematically impeded the workers' return to work. The prosecutors have vowed to charge, indict and mete out penal punishment against rank and file union members if drastic interruption or problems in supply of electricity results due to the strike.

Four union leaders of the 24 against whom arrest warrants were issued were apprehended by the police so far. Prosecutors secured "detention order" from the court against two. The court denied prosecutor's request against one person. The fourth person, who was apprehended on March 13, awaits the court decision. The four arrested leaders are all "organising directors" from 4 out of 5 union branches (located at each of the five companies).

[CHOI In-ho, organising director, East-West branch, was apprehended on March 8, but the court ruled against the prosecutor's application for remand order. KIM Hyun-dong, organising director, Southern branch, was apprehended by police on March 8 the court issued an order to hold him in detention [remanded] while the prosecutors prepare the indictment and conviction. JEON Seung-wook, organising director, South-East branch, was apprehended on March 10 and similar detention order was issued against him. JEON Hyung-soon, organising director, Midland branch was snatched by police on March 13 and now awaits the court ruling on pre-conviction detention (as of March 15).]

On March 14, under the direction and instruction of the Prosecutors Office, where "all prosecutors of Korea, as constituents of a well-organized hierarchial order, perform their duties as one entity under the direction and supervision of the Prosecutor-General [...] obliged to respect the official order from their superiors [in compliance with] the so-called 'principle of identity of prosecutors'" the police have issued summons to eight KCTU leaders and executive officers, including Acting President Heo Young-koo and KPSU president Yang Kyoung-kyu in relation to their roles in the public utilities workers strike.

Six others summoned by police/prosecutors are: Lee Hong-woo, KCTU general secretary, Yang Han-woong, KPSU first vice-president, Hwang Min-ho, KPSU vice-president, Shin Ern-jik, KCTU Executive Director for Organising, Shin Hyun-hoon, KCTU Executive Director for Solidarity Outreach, and Lee Keun-won, KPSU Executive Director for Organisng.

Police Getting into the Act

On the ground, the police have stepped up its efforts to break up the strike, raising concerns about human rights violation.

Striking workers have, from the evening of March 27, dispersed into different areas in groups of 5 to 10. As their "guerrilla stay-away strike" - which, by the way, has not seen any kind of violence the government has been shrilling about - has entered the third week, the police, which had no idea where they were, began to catch up with them. This led to eruption of "clashes".

On March 12, police from Pupyung Police Station caught up with 11 members of the union from Ulsan at an inn nearby the Pupyung Railway Station, about one hour from downtown Seoul. They were apprehended as "criminals caught in the act" for "obstruction of business". What business - hotel business? The power workers' strike is trumpeted as illegal and thus "obstruction of business". Therefore, the fact that these workers were in hotels away from work was deemed to be "criminal act in progress" which the police was ordered to deal with.

On the same day, another group of 17 striking workers were beset on by some 40 police. They were surrounded by police pressuring them to write and sign a "Statement of Intent to Return to Work". When they refused, they were apprehended and taken to police station for suspicion of "obstruction of business". Once brought to the station, they were told they could go if they write the statement. When asked by journalists, police spokesperson explained, "It is possible to apprehend and detain the striking workers as 'criminals in criminal act in progress' as the strike by the power workers union is regarded as illegal strike. However, we required them to write a statement as reference persons and a statement of intent to return to work to give them a chance to return to the company."

Two days earlier, on March 10, 8 unionists were discovered by police and taken to the Ilsan Police Station, about one hour distance from downtown Seoul. Police pressured the workers to write a statement which expressed an intent to return to work. Some time later management personnel of the power companies arrived. Police handed over the apprehended striking workers to the management representative, who then continued to press them to return to work.

In many similar cases, police camped out at the doors and corridors of the inns where the striking workers were staying for up to 3 to 4 hours upbraiding the workers, threatening them, and demanding them to write the 'return to work statement'. In most cases, the police only withdrew from the workers when company management representatives arrived to continue the striking breaking effort.

In some cases, police arrived at the homes of unionists and searched the houses. In all such cases, police failed to produce a search warrant, declaring that they were informed that "persons on police wanted list" were reported seen. In one case police explained, "while there was no search warrant, we obtained the consent from the owner of the house after explaining the intent".

On March 13, KCTU, having documented all the reports of police harassment action against the striking workers filed a petition to the National Human Rights Commission. The KCTU petition raises a number of serious questions concerning the legality of the police procedure and the whole idea of police pressuring - state's use of police powers to force -- individual workers to return to work.

KCTU's legal experts argue that forcing workers to write a "statement of intent to return to work" under the threat of arrest for being caught in the act of crime is clearly illegal as it violates the freedom of conscience enshrined in the Constitution. KCTU's petition viewed the police action to be tantamount to "forced labour".

KCTU to Strike Against Privatisation

An emergency meeting of the central executive committee will be convened on Monday March 18 to prepare for an extraordinary session of the National Congress which will decide on the general strike.

The decision of the Leaders Council, which brings together the heads of all KCTU's affiliates, follows the special resolution adopted by the March 13 Leaders Conference.

Leaders Conference, attended by some 500 leaders of enterprise-level unions, held a press conference, to declare that they will strike in solidarity with the electricity workers against privatisation. They made public the resolution to strike if the central issues in the current dispute are not resolved by March 23.

Two major affiliates of the KCTU began their own process to give substance to the KCTU decisions concerning the second solidarity general strike. The Korean Metal Workers Federation, whose member unions led the first solidarity general strike on February 26, at a meeting of its Central Committee, reconfirmed the resolution to strike again if there the government moves to crush the current strike. The KPSU is considering holding a strike ballot of all its members to inject organisational momentum to the KCTU plans for the second solidarity general strike.

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