1996–97 strikes in South Korea
In December 1996 and January 1997, South Korea experienced the largest organized strike in its history, when workers in the automotive and shipbuilding industries refused to work in protest against a law which was to make firing employees easier for employers and curtail labor organizing rights.
Among other things, the Korean government intended to postpone the legal recognition of the recently established Korean Confederation of Trade Unions until the year 2000. The officially recognized Federation of Korean Trade Unions then called upon its 1.2 million members to go on strike on December 26. This was its first call for a general strike since the union's founding in 1962.
After a single day, the strikes started spreading to other sectors including hospitals. On December 28, South Korean riot police turned violent against the strikers, using tear gas to dispel crowds. Strikers responded by throwing bricks.
In late January 1997, the strike ended after the labor laws were repealed by the government.
In December 1996 and January 1997, there was a massive four week nationwide strike in South Korea in protest against newly passed labor laws which gave employers more power to lay off employees, made it easier to hire temporary/strike replacing workers and put off allowing multiple unions to be formed at a given enterprise. This resulted in the mobilized three million workers, which shut down auto/ship production, disrupted hospitals, subways and television. The two main unions involved were The Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) working with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (FCTU). This strike was notable due to its consistently high levels of worker participation and high level of public support. Two months after the end of the strike, the government passed very similar laws with only small concessions, making the strikes enormously successful in mobilization but only marginally successful in terms of actual results.
From 1985 to 1996 South Korea experienced a series of strikes that resulted in a clash of old laws and governmental frameworks that were incompatible with modern working practices. South Korea was able to endure these strikes and the lost revenue associated with them because of the “Three Lows” low interest rates, the lower value of the dollar against the yen and low oil prices. After these lows dissipated South Korea felt that it could no longer afford continued labor unrest. Many companies attempted to institute practices that would allow for cost cutting such as reliance on contract workers and part-time workers, in addition to allowing for voluntary retirement and adopting a no work no pay policy. These moves were actively opposed by labor groups and the need for labor reform became clear. This belief also led to South Korea’s New Korea Party (NKP) creating the Labor-Management Relations Reform Committee (LMRRC) on May 9 of members of various labor interest groups, university professors and lawmakers. Its 30 members held several public hearings on the creation on new labor policies and created the New Labor Law. This new Labor law would make it easier and legal for companies to lay off workers, increase the legal work-week by 12 hours and allowing companies to modify working hours, make the use of scab labor during strikes legal and outlawing strike-pay.
The South Korean government said changes were necessary to make South Korea “more competitive with other developing economies” that were emerging as competitors to Korea. the committees that had been created were unsuccessful in creating a new labor bill, after six months of hearing so the NKP decided to create a new secret committee to create the bill on December 3. Then on December 26 in the wee hours of the morning four busses filled with NKP members arrived at the capital and in the course of twenty minutes eleven bills were passed. This action not only angered those outside the governmental walls but also the LMRRC and those in other political parties who felt cheated. None of the other parties were aware of this vote and the outraged that resulted from these dishonest political maneuvering were major contributors to the strikes and labor movements that followed hours later.
The two main unions involved in the 1996-97 strikes were the FKTU partnered with the FCTU. The Federation of Korean Trade Unions was formed in 1960 when the General Federation of Korean Trade Unions was dissolved after a military coup. The GFKTU was preceded by the General Council of Korean Unions which was banned in 1947. Until the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions was recognized by the government in November 1999, the FKTU remained the sole legal trade union center in South Korea.
In 1990, workers and trade unionists illegally created the Korean Trade Union Congress. By the end of the year, they had 600 affiliated trade unions and 190,000 members. In 1995 the KTUC merged with other unrecognized trade unions and formed the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. By 1997, the KCTU had grown to include 907 trade unions and 400,000 members. They received deferred legal recognition in 1996 and were finally achieved full legal status in 1999. The two unions competed with each other for members and many trade unions formerly affiliated with the FKTU defected to the KCTU. The difference in origins between the FKTU and the KCTU are reflected in their different political strategies. The FKTU advocates for “constructive engagement with employers at enterprise and industry levels” and generally discourages industrial action. The KCTU takes the opposite stance, arguing that their goals can only be met by direct action.
The strike was planned to begin on Friday, January 13 with a four-hour walkout in the heavy industrial export industries, including 34,000 workers at Hyundai Motor Co., 18,000 workers at Kia, 21,000 workers at the Hyundai Heavy Industries Shipyard, etc. It would also include transit workers who operate the subway in Seoul, workers at the 10 major hospitals in Seoul, and tens of thousands of others. The initial demand was for a repeal of the new labor law but as the strike went on, demands for the Kim Young Sam government to be overturned were added to the demands to repeal the law. the initial turnout was surprising because the labor movements in Korea and experience what was called a “double failure” in the 90s when it failed to gain serious political power and also failed to include its organizational efficiency. Despite this, the unions involved were able to effectively bring South Koreas economy to a halt on only a few hours’ notice.
The government declared all strike action illegal and coordinated with business leaders to attempt to break the strike by using replacement workers and threats of reprisal. On January 6, government threatened to arrest at least 20 union officials. On January 16, riot police fired tear gas at thousands of workers marching toward Myongdong Cathedral. As a result Kwon Young Kil, the strike’s leader, announced on January 18 that the KCTU would strike only on Wednesdays until Feb 18, when they would resume all-out strikes if the government didn’t cancel the law. They would also hold mass protests every Saturday. Later that day, police tangled with thousands of workers and student supporters trying to reach union leaders. On January 20, the president agreed to meet opposition leaders to try to resolve unrest as tens of thousands of union members returned to work. Hundreds of students battled police with firebombs, rocks and tear gas after a union leader urged an end to violence.  These violent actions undertaken by President Kim and his government eventually proved to undermine him as it turned international and domestic favor against him. His and the NKP both suffered major dips in approval ratings as a result of these action. The government threatened union leaders with the National Security Law - if they were found guilty of working with the socialist North, they would be subject to heavy penalties with very little proof of their guilt. These accusations became a major negotiating point as it caused distrust between any of these leaders and the government, which made any kind of negotiating difficult.
The turnout for the strikes was very successful 610,000 left jobs in largest walkout in country’s history. FKTU announced on January 14 that 700,000 of its 1.2 million members would be striking that day. Government defended laws as necessary to boost SK’s worsening ability to compete internationally and combat slackening exports, a rising trade deficit, and declining growth In the first three weeks of the strikes, 200,000 workers in 176 firms cost an estimated $2.3 billion, primarily in the auto, machinery, and shipbuilding industries, according to the government  Due to the increased international pressure and the domestic push, President Kim’s suffered a major dip in approval ratings down to 13.9% from the 27.4% it had been only two months prior. In addition the New Korea Party also suffered a dip in ratings from 27% to 7%. This led President Kim to invite religious and civic leaders to the capital on Jan 21 on the grounds that he was willing to change the law, as a gesture of goodwill the KCTU reduced the strikes to once a week on Wednesday and then on January 28 the KCTU suddenly canceled all protests stating that they would return to striking if amendments were not made to the labor bill.
A poll by a Korean newspaper showed that 75% of salaried workers supported the two-day general strike, and 34% had switched their support to the workers’ side to protest Kim’s tactics  The FKTU, which usually collaborated with the government, joined some of the strike actions due to widespread public support. Students backed the workers, as did farmers, who reportedly delivered eggs to the protestors to throw at New Party offices. Many of the world’s major labor federations, including the AFL-CIO in the US supported the strikers. The Australian Council of Trade Unions called on their government to publicly support the strikers. North Korean students and workers demonstrated solidarity with striking workers. 
Unfortunately for the movement on January 24, the second largest steel company in Korea declared bankruptcy and with it there came to surface a hosts of government scandals, this diverted the medias focus from the plight of the labors. Compounding the problem many workers and unions had did not want to go back on strike because they had already suffered lost wages and could not afford to continue. Not only could the workers no longer afford to continue, the KCTU and the FKTU had run out of money by this point and did not have the necessary finances to continue the strikes.
On February 12 the leaders of the two camps decided to meet in order to hash out a compromise, on the 17th they met but there proposals and recommendations were not solidified until the 24th. As negotiations continued the KCTU staged several strikes on the 28th and threatened more strikes if the government did not allow more concessions. On March 10 the finalized bill was agreed upon, it was not much different from the original but a few concessions were made. The general coconscious at the time was that Unions did not reach their original goal and that the changes were mostly insignificant. The “no work, no pay” principle was allowed to continue, schoolteachers and public servants were still denied full union benefits and employers were permitted to stop paying union leaders. However the implementation of flexible layoff program was delayed for two years.
This was the first successful general strike since the Korean War, and was the interest of white collar families as well as blue collar. Due to both the diversity of the interest and the massive turnout it showed the unity of the new nation.
Despite the minimal impact these strikes ended up having on actual policy, the South Korean industrial worker was not poorly off. The manufacture workers still had a lifetime guarantee to their job in that layoffs were illegal, which was completely unheard of in the western world. In addition Manufacturing workers in South Korea were among the best paid in Asia even matching Singapore with triple the income per capita. Unfortunately this only lasted until December 2, 1997 when the South Korean government was forced to ask the international Monetary Fund for 57 billion dollars due to a series of foreign exchange and financial crises. This forced South Korea to adopt more western standards of labor policy’s in order to remain competitive with foreign companies and because of an International Monetary Fund led structural adjustment plan.
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