S. Korean workers reel from violent union busting; police passively observe [The Hankyoreh / 한겨레]

Private security workers from Contractus block the entrance to SJM’s Ansan factory. The hired goons violently broke up a sit-in protest after storming into the plant early in the morning on July 27. (by Ryu Woo-jong, staff photographer)

Management at industrial firms dispatch hired thugs to undermine union rights

By Kim So-youn and Lee Jung-gook, staff reporters

June 30, 2012

Workers are expressing renewed concerns about an attempt to kill off democratic unions.

The worries come in the wake of lockouts and the hiring of private security workers at the Asan factory of car parts maker SJM and the Pyeongtaek, Munmak, and Iksan factories of Mando Corporation. Workers and management at both companies are involved in tense disputes over wages and collective bargaining.

According to July 29 accounts from workers and management at the two companies, the lockouts and deployment of security workers Friday were both firsts. In particular, management locked out workers unexpectedly at a time when both unions were adopting a fairly passive form of collective action, calling for slowdowns or intermittent, one-day partial strikes rather than all-out strikes.

Lockouts and the introduction of security workers are often seen by labor world observers as textbook steps by management to bring down a union.

Indeed, the same trap previously brought down democratic unions at key Korean Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU) workplaces in 2010 and 2011, including Valeo Electrical Systems, Sangsin Brake, KEC, and YPR. The result was either the formation of new union more sympathetic to management, or the union’s departure from the KMWU, the country’s largest industrial union.

“When bargaining doesn’t go smoothly or the company adopts restructuring policies such as outsourcing of production, the union has no choice but to fight through collective action,” explained KMWU spokesperson Kim Ji-hee.

“And when this happens, management resorts to a lockout and security workers, forcing union members out of the factory and dragging the conflict into the long term,” Kim added.

Since the lockout only applies to union members, the union loses the power to organize a strike if non-members in administrative and office positions keep the factory running and meeting quotas. It is further weakened if the company launches a pressure offensive by taking disciplinary action or demanding damages.

Indeed, Mando Corporation plans to put office workers on the production line to ensure output through August 5, the vacation period. SJM also said it would be holding the union accountable for damages incurred during the plant’s occupation.

The labor community is not convinced these were individual decisions by the companies. An official with the KMWU’s Mando chapter said a lockout was unlikely without the consent of the automaker receiving the parts, given the huge losses the company would suffer from resulting difficulties in ensuring supplies.

While YPR was locked out last year, a document surfaced alleging involvement by Hyundai Motor and a specialized consultancy.

“Recently, we’ve seen one union after another crumbling at workplaces that had previously maintained good jobs through the efforts of democratic unions, including the so-called ‘temporary worker-free factories,’” said Korean Committee of Irregular Workers’ Unions policy committee member Oh Min-gyu.

“This is not just an issue for that particular company,” Oh added. “It has an impact on the entire labor market.”

Meanwhile, police were found to have taken no action when private security contractor employees entered SJM’s Ansan plant Friday morning and engaged in indiscriminate acts of violence.

Union members and witnesses said around 200 employees of the security company Contactus stormed the plant at the Banwol Industrial Complex in Ansan’s Danwon district early Friday morning. The security workers reportedly threw sharp iron parts and fire extinguishers from [sic] the plant and used clubs against around 150 workers who were holding a sit-in protest there. At least eleven people suffered fractures and other serious injuries. A total of 34 were hurt, with some hospitalized.

The Security Services Industry Act bars security workers from shows of authority or uses of physical force beyond the scope of normal security duties.

The Contactus employees descended on the factory at around 4:30 Friday morning, coming to the front entrance with cries of “Advance!” and “Break through!” The workers were outfitted in gear befitting a police commando unit, with helmets, shields, and meter-long clubs. Upon entering, they sprayed fire extinguishers to obscure the union members’ view and launched an attack with clubs. They also used abusive and threatening language, with witnesses quoting them as saying, “We’re going to kill those bastards once we get in” and “Cut their belly open.” Some of the union members driven out were women.

Union member Jo Dong-ju, 45, was struck just below the nose with a piece of metal thrown by a security worker, resulting in a dented tooth and a split lip that required stitches. Han Jeong-nok, 49, was severely injured when struck in the head by a fire extinguisher hurled by one of the security employees.

Many witnesses said three squadrons with the Danwon Police Station were outside the factory but took no action…

Contactus previously notified the police station at 11pm on Wednesday that it would be deploying workers to the SJM factory at 6am on Thursday. However, the actual deployment came at 4:30am on Friday. The three squadrons were sent in at around 5:30am, but did not take action to stop the illegal acts of violence within the factory or arrest the security workers for violating the law.

Jeong Yeong-sik, a 46-year-old unionist who broke a leg jumping from a second-floor window, said, “I was lying on the ground asking the police to help me, and they just stood there and watched.”

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