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TRNN Replay: Young Ho Lee tells the story of the 77-day occupation and fight against lay-offs at Korean Auto factory

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re in Dearborn, Michigan, at the Labor Notes Conference. In May 2009, Korean workers at the SsangYong Motor plant began a sit-in that lasted 77 days, one of the longest and most intense in the history of Korean labor struggles. SsangYong Motors, which was previously owned by the Chinese government-owned company Shanghai Motors, went bankrupt in January 2009, was taken over by a bank and private investors, and as part of its restructuring demanded massive layoffs. In response, the workers said no. Now joining us in Dearborn, Michigan, to tell us about the strike is Young-Ho Lee, who’s the chair of the layoffs committee for SsangYong Motors, which is a branch of the Korean Metal Workers Union. Thanks for joining us, Young-Ho. Tell us what happened during that 77 days. Why did the workers take over the plant? And what happened?

YOUNG-HO LEE, KOREAN METAL WORKERS UNION (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): On April 8, 2009, the decision was made to lay off 2,646 SsangYong’s workers in order to rationalize the business. On June 8, 2009, the company announced it was laying off 976 workers. When Shanghai Motors took over the company, they unilaterally breached all the existing agreements, which included recruitment agreements, investment agreements, etc. The 77-day SsangYong strike was extremely long and unprecedented in Korean history. The workers fought against the government and creditors, their slogan being “Layoffs is murder! Let’s live together!” The layoffs were destroying people and their families. Therefore we had to resist this injustice. But the Lee Myung-bak government and the creditors pushed the fight of SsangYong Motors workers to the edge.

JAY: So the banks and the government say that there needs to be labor flexibility or they can’t get this company out of bankruptcy. What’s your answer to that?

LEE: Lee Myung-bak government’s Work Place Relations policy has two main goals. The first goal is Workers’ Flexibility Policy, and the other one is the Destruction of Workers’ Unions. As you know, the Workers Flexibility policy includes layoffs, early retirement, etc. Destruction of Workers Unions aims to destroy workers unions by enforcing workers’ flexibility. SsangYong Motors forced the layoffs in order to make an example of them to other groups.

JAY: What did the workers talk about when they were in the plant? How did they keep up their spirit there?

LEE: I’ve worked hard for nearly 20 years and I couldn’t understand why I was being laid off. During the strike, we educated ourselves and discussed the layoffs in the morning and got trained to fight against police in the afternoon. And in the evening we assembled with candles. During the 77 days of the strike we lost six lives. The causes of death were cerebral hemorrhage, myocardial infarction, suicide and stress over layoffs. A union member’s wife committed suicide by hanging herself, because the company threatened to arrest her for joining the strike. They said her family was going to be homeless.

JAY: Many plants lay off workers in Korea and other countries, but workers don’t usually fight back with this much militancy. Why were you able to take such a stand?

LEE: Imagine if someone, in our case Chinese Shanghai Motors, breaks into your house, steals your things and assaults your family. So the house owner reports the incident to the police and says: “Please hurry up and help us!” By the time the police arrives, it’s too late. Instead of investigating the crime, they accuse the house owner of the robbery. How would the house owner feel? So the house owner has to pick up an iron bar to defend his family. Factory workers should not bear the responsibility. As I said previously, Chinese, Shanghai investment, the industrial funds, and the Lee Myung-bak government should be held accountable, as well as the management that failed to properly run the company for the last 4 years. We don’t agree that the workers should deal with the consequences instead of the ones who should take responsibility.

JAY: In August 2009, you, the workers, decided to leave the plant and make an agreement. What was the agreement, and why did you decide to do it?

LEE: At that time, the circumstances at the factory in Pyeongtaek were really dire. As you already know, we had no water, no food, electricity or gas. It wasn’t easy for the workers to fight, while all they had to eat was rice balls for more than 20 days. A much bigger problem was that we lacked the strength to deal with the effects of a long-term fight. Secondly, because of the battles with the police, we had too many injured inside of the Pyeongtaek factory. There were more than 150 injured, so we had to treat them. That was the biggest problem for us. Thirdly, there were many chemical substances stored at factories 1 and 2. Factory 1, for example, stored more than 6,000 liters of fuel. There was a chance of those exploding, which we didn’t want to imagine. Therefore, the board of the workers’ union decided to accept the agreement. These were the underpinnings for the agreement of August 6.

JAY: So is this struggle now, by other Korean workers, is it seen as a kind of victory that will inspire similar kinds of resistance? Or is it kind of a defeat?

LEE: After 77 days of strike, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, Metal Labor Union and civil society groups made an assessment of the strike against SsangYong Motors. They admitted that the strike was heroic, but after hearing the points of the August agreement, they considered it only a partial victory. On the other hand, some thought [it] was a total loss, a complete surrender. Korean workers had two contrasting opinions about the SsangYong Motors strike. The first one was that striking should have been avoided, since they can’t defeat the government even if they put their lives on the line. The other one: they should have kept on fighting to defeat the government.

JAY: And what do you think?

LEE: My opinion is that we shouldn’t have signed the agreement on August 6. I’m really sure about this. If only we fought even harder, we could have made them withdraw the layoffs entirely.

JAY: Thanks for joining us. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Young Ho Lee is the president of Korean Metal Workers Union, South Korea