Defend the Korean rail strikers! Break with the liberals!

Edited version of a speech by an IBT supporter at a forum on the Korean rail strike in the San Francisco Bay Area organized by the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee (TWSC)

Like many radicals in the Bay Area we have been following the rail strike closely and were shocked when the government attacked the offices of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the footage of the raid was broadcast around the world. The Korean labor movement is an inspiration to many because of both its history and its militancy. I'm glad that the worker's movement, particularly in Asia, responded quickly by going to Korean embassies and protesting. Following the raid on 22 December, there were demonstrations in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Dhaka, Istanbul, the Philippines, Sao Paolo, Australia, Panama, Paris and of course the TWSC organized rallies here in San Francisco in December and January.

The Korean Rail Workers Union (KRWU) has about 20,500 members. The KRWU went on strike on 10 December in an attempt to stop KORAIL from privatizing the Suseo KTX high speed line, which is scheduled to begin operation in 2016. The KTX is the most profitable part of KORAIL's business, and the government intends to spin it off into a subsidiary.

The strike was authorized by a General Assembly of the KRWU membership on 22 November. The turnout for that vote was 90% of the membership, and the strike authorization passed by 80%. Those of you who know American unions will understand how amazing these numbers are.

The short version of what happened next is that the government decided that this was a fantastic opportunity to crush the KRWU and make an example of them the way that Reagan did here with the PATCO strike back in the 1980s. The government suspended 8,500 of the KRWU workers, and around 16 December they issued warrants for the arrest of the KRWU leadership and raided their offices. This created a mass upsurge, which rose up out of many pre-existing social problems, and resulted in a 22 day strike – the longest rail strike in South Korean history. The strike took on a mass dimension, with increasing participation from the public and the “We Are Not Fine” student movement. To illustrate how much the situation changed: on 14 December the KRWU held a rally at Seoul Station attracting about 14,000 people; by 28 December the KCTU mass rally drew 100,000.

We support and defend the rail workers in their struggle against privatization and call for an end to the reprisals against union members. At the same time we are extremely critical of the conditions under which the strike was brought to an end.

We are not privy to the internal debates inside the KRWU and KCTU. But these are the facts about the end of the strike.

The strike ended when KRWU President Kim Myung-hwan made an agreement with a delegation of Democratic Party and Saenuri leaders to end the strike. These are the two major capitalist parties in South Korea – liberals and conservatives. The agreement established a “Sub-Committee on Railway Development” with eight members – four from Saenuri and four from the opposition parties – the Democrats and the UPP (Unified Progressive Party).

The agreement ended the strike but placed two capitalist parties in control of a parliamentary body adjudicating the dispute. It has done nothing concrete to stop rail privatization. In fact the Sub-Committee could not even agree to put privatization on its agenda! The KRWU did not get an agreement from the government that it would stop retaliating against KRWU members or drop the charges against its leaders. This is an elementary precondition for signing an agreement because it is necessary to make sure people can go back to work and continue to organize.

One argument in support of the agreement is that the union was beaten down by the repression of the strike. The leadership was in hiding and the political will simply did not exist to carry on. It may be true that the KRWU members felt that they were in a weak position, but this argument ignores the very important fact that the General Assembly of the KRWU instructed the union to strike with the stated objective of ending the privatization. The leadership of the KRWU and KCTU ended the strike without achieving that goal, and without obtaining authorization from the membership.

We have heard that the rank-and-file in the union were furious when the strike was called off. Following the announcement of the agreement, one man set himself on fire in protest on a road outside Seoul Station. We know that the level of mass participation was increasing, and that the right wing, pro-government union federation had been forced to join the strike. Yet after the agreement was signed the KCTU deescalated the so called “General Strikes” in January.

Why did the KCTU not try to mobilize other unions for what they call an “all-out strike” in defense of the rail workers? I believe that the simplest explanation is that the KCTU leadership deliberately shut down the strike.

The KCTU leadership has strong ties to both the Democratic Party and the UPP. But it is not just the Saenuri party which is responsible for privatization. The liberals, when they were in power from 1998-2008, were every bit as much for privatization as Saenuri is today. It was also the liberals who forced through the KORUS Free Trade Agreement. The configuration is, in this respect, similar to the US: both the Korean Democrats and Saenuri, just like the Democrats and Republicans in the US, are pro-privatization and anti-working class in every respect that really makes a difference. But the influence of the Democrats in the workers movement creates a mistaken belief that the dispute can be resolved in Parliament.

The International Bolshevik Tendency opposes voting for, funding or giving any sort of political support to capitalist parties – whether or not they claim to be friends of labor. I think it is useful to compare this to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. In 1984, Howard Keylor, who was at that time on the Executive Board of ILWU Local 10 and a supporter of the IBT, co-authored the motion which led to the 11-day anti-apartheid strike against the Nedlloyd Kimberley in the Port of San Francisco. Many people in this room were involved in that struggle. However, the IBT also argued against the integration of the trade union federation COSATU into the Tripartite Alliance with the South African Communist Party and the ANC. It was our position that the ANC is a capitalist party and the workers needed to organize independently and fight for socialism.

Unfortunately, the validity of the positions that the IBT stood for have been proven in a negative sense. ANC-led IMF austerity has ravaged South Africa for more than two decades now, although there are some signs that the unions are beginning to assert their independence once more. Similarly, in South Korea, we fight for the same thing, for a revolutionary Marxist leadership and a break from political collaboration with the capitalist parties. We cannot defeat privatization unless we break from the liberals. And a successful struggle by the workers must ultimately place the question of socialist revolution on the order of the day.