Korean Labor Won’t Back Down

Twenty-five teachers from the Korean Teachers and Education Worker’s Union (KTU), who were just released from jail Thursday evening, are planning to resume their protest Saturday with an overnight vigil near the Ministry of Education (MOE), says a KTU source, who was reached by telephone at the union’s headquarters in Seoul.

The teachers were arrested Tuesday evening at 10 p.m. as they were gathered at the MOE to press their demands for specified teaching hours and private school reform, said Kim Yong-Kook. But they were released Thursday evening, since Korean law only allowed the police to hold them for 48 hours.

According to Korean law, teachers have a right to establish a trade union and engage in collective bargaining, Kim explained. But they do not have the right to strike.

“A gathering in front of the education ministry is kind of a strike,” said Kim. “So it is illegal.” Kim described Saturday’s plans as a “national gathering” of teachers, anticipating perhaps 1,000 to attend. They plan to sleep outdoors, near the ministry.

“It’s kind of illegal,” said Kim with a chuckle, “but it is our right.”

The union is asking that guidelines for hours of teaching be placed into law. Currently, said Kim, primary school teachers are in the classroom for 30 hours per week, which does not give them enough time to prepare lessons or assess student work. The union is asking that classroom hours for elementary teachers be reduced to 16 per week.

In middle school and high school, the union is asking that classroom hours be set at 18 per week. Currently, middle school teachers work 22-25 hours in the classroom, while high school teachers sometimes work as many as 20, said Kim.

On the issue of private schools, the union is concerned that private school administrators who steal education funds have been allowed to resume their administrative duties.

The KTU has been teaching anti-war classes this week in commemoration of the funeral for Kim Sun-il, a translator who was killed last week in Iraq.

Korean unions have taken a defiant stand against further troop deployments. And Kim said teachers have joined the anti-war protests in large numbers.

“When teachers go to anti-war rallies as citizens, there is no problem with the law,” said Kim. “But when we gather as teachers to make demands on the ministry, then there is a problem.”

According to Digital Chosun reporter Ahn Seok-bae, the FTU, also known as Chunkyojo, had dedicated this past week to teaching “anti-war” classes. But the teachers have been put on notice for their anti-war curriculum.

By June 28, the first day of proposed “anti-war” classes, the MOE had already reviewed the teaching materials posted at the Chunkyojo website and pledged to send out directives that would, in the words of journalist Ahn Seok-bae, “make sure that the class is not used to instill distorted points of view in students.”

At the KTU website one finds a link to an “antipabyeong” or antiwar site, featuring a graduation portrait of Sun-il and a letter, apparently written by a school child admonishing the Korean president: “All Korean soldier must out of Iraq. Please, please this is your mistake. Why do you send Korean soldiers to Iraq,” says the letter.

While the June 28 story reports that the MOE had concluded that the “data on the homepage of the Korean Teachers’ Union is a collection of objective facts”, the situation changed overnight. An unsigned story in Electronic Chosun on June 29 declares that the materials, “are not proper for class-room use.”

“Accordingly, the Education Ministry sent the KTU an official document stating that teachers should refrain from conducting anti-war classes, and if teachers conduct anti-war classes in an ideological way, they will be dealt with according to the law,” says the June 29 story.

An un-named official at the MOE explained that the materials had been referred to the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation, “and the KICE concluded that there are some problems with the materials.”

“The KTU said that the materials were collected from newspaper articles on Iraq including the troop dispatch,” said the MOE official, “but the analysis showed that the content was mostly from anti-American and anti-troop deployment viewpoints. It is also found that many materials resort to emotion rather than logic, thus causing concern that they may instill prejudiced ideologies in students.”

“The KICE expressed its opinions in saying that if the materials are to be reinforced, it would be desirable to exclude Kim Sun-il’s personal information and criticisms against the government’s policies,” reports Digital Chosun.

“The Ministry asked the KTU in an official document to refrain from holding anti-war classes and to revise the class materials, since the classes can damage the neutrality of education and instill a distorted point of view in students, who lack the ability to judge value,” said the Chosun article.

But Chunkyojo replied: “The purpose of anti-war classes is to teach the importance of peace and life. For now, we do not plan to change the materials, but we will consider adding some more materials.”

Three KTU leaders were arrested by authorities in April for “denouncing the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun and supporting the Democratic Labor Party (DLP),” according to the Korea Times.

“Under current laws, teachers and public servants are banned from engaging in politics,” explained reporter Soh Ji-young. “Thus they are not allowed to publicly express their support for political parties.”

A report by Hyo-Lim Son at donga.com in late March, translates a defiant KTU statement into English, only days after the Korean Constitutional Court ruled that public employees should keep their politics quiet.

“KTU’s political directive is to turn workers into a political force through the DLP,” Chunkyojo leader Won Young-man said in a statement posted on the union’s website. “The KTU has decided to respond proactively to the elections at the recent delegation meeting in an effort to turn workers into a political force.”

“If teachers remain silent about any change in the world just because they are regarded as civil servants, this is undemocratic,” Won said, commenting on the recent anti-impeachment statement made by the union. “Any discipline against teachers involved with the statement, which represents a legitimate right and the minimum expression of opinion, is only violence.”

The KTU position on political involvement was taken in solidarity with the umbrella Korea Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), explained a Chunkyojo source. Likewise today, the KTU anti-war activities are also in keeping with broader KCTU policy.

“KCTU affirms that labour rights, including freedom of association, are not only fundamental components of democracy, but prerequisite for participation of workers in the economic, social, and political affairs of national life,” says the group’s website.

On June 23, KCTU posted a statement demanding cancellation of plans to send Korean troops to Iraq. “We demand that the Korean government not play puppet to the foreign policies of the US and that it take a firm stance again it, and that it protect the rights and the lives of its citizens.”

Within days, the Korean Association of Airline Unions announced that they would follow the KCTU leadership by refusing to transport troops or military equipment to Iraq. A report by Kim Sung-mi at the Korea Herald says that, “80 percent of pilots at Korean Air and 90 percent at Asiana Airlines Inc. are unionized under the KCTU.”

“Because of the government’s drive for the troop dispatch, airline employees are faced with increased danger of terrorism around the world” said Shin Man-soo [quoting the Korea Herald report], who leads the pilots union at Korean Air Co., the country’s largest carrier. “We could be the target of terrorist attacks.”

While news reports about the killing of Kim Sun-il portray his killers as “Iraqi militants,” Ahn Mi-Young reports that Kim’s mother understands the killing in a broader political context. “The government killed my son,” wailed Shin Young-Ja, 63, mother of the dead South Korean, as she viewed her son’s coffin after it arrived in the country from Iraq over the weekend.

Meanwhile, this week, says Forbes.com, “Thousands of workers at KorAm Bank went on strike for the second day Tuesday demanding job guarantees in the wake of a takeover by U.S.-based Citigroup earlier this year.” The takeover was, according to Forbes, “the first takeover of a local bank by a foreign commercial lender.”

And auto workers at Hyundai, Kia, and Dae-woo are striking for better pay and working conditions. But Dae-woo workers are also protesting the government’s decision to allow the sale of the company to General Motors.

The anti-war militancy of Korean unionists drew quick support from Iraqi labor organizers. “We call all labour organisations and Unions worldwide and especially in USA and UK to join this action of Korean trade unions to end the occupation in Iraq and for immediate withdrawal of all troops from Iraq and for a better future for Iraqi society and the working people of Iraq,” said Aso Jabbar, international spokesperson for the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (WCUI) and the Unemployed Union of Iraqis (UUI).

Finally, a hypothesis for further consideration. The Korean KCTU and the Iraqi WCUI are not the only labor coalitions in their respective countries that oppose the occupation of Iraq, but a distant reader gets the impression that these two groups are similarly committed to broader agendas of social change and labor empowerment. Industrial unionism or social unionism, if you will, rather than the kind of unionism that accepts labor’s confinement as “workers only.” The emergence of these voices presents a promise and hope that times of crisis can present opportunities for democratic renewal.

For example in the USA, the Texas State Employees Union is active in its political opposition to an aggressive “privatization” agenda that includes the establishment of “call centers” that would potentially “outsource” phone calls placed to Texas human services agencies and route them around the world.

As globalization of elite, corporate power continues to consolidate materials and strategies for war and profit, there are better and better reasons to keep your channels tuned to the globalizing trends for labor rights and peace.

Note: the above article was compiled from three separate reports by the author.

GREG MOSES writes for the Texas Civil Rights Review. He can be reached at: gmosesx@prodigy.net

Greg Moses writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time. He is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. As editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review he has written about racism faced by Black agriculturalists in Texas. Moses is a member of the Texas Civil Rights Collaborative. He can be reached at gmosesx@gmail.com