Some 900 workers at Ssangyong, the smallest of South Korea’s five car manufacturers, have occupied their factory against mass sackings for the last two months.
Ssangyong declared bankruptcy in February after its majority shareholder, Shanghai Motors, withdrew its investment blaming the worldwide economic crisis. The court appointed managers to run the company.
The company announced a plan to sack some 2,600 workers, nearly 40 percent of the workforce.
Under South Korean law the government has to give permission before any mass sackings can be made. The right wing government calculated that by attacking the least militant section of the powerful car workers’ union it could force other car workers to accept bad deals.
But they weren't prepared for the workers’ reaction – a factory occupation began on 22 May.
The workers at Ssangyong were furious. The extreme pressure put on them by the government and the company had already caused the deaths of six workers.
When the workers occupied they had the support of the public even though they were occupying private property.
The government and company savagely attacked the workers. They mobilized 5,000 riot police and strikebreakers, and blockaded the plant. Recently, they have even stopped the supply of essential necessities like water, foods and medical supplies.
Police helicopters sprinkled the liquefied tear gas onto the workers. This is so strong that it melts skin. Police have also been using tasers, often aiming them at workers' faces.
Many workers have been seriously wounded by the ongoing attacks by riot police and strikebreakers. People are starting to describe the factory as “a warzone”.
But the workers have kept showing almost superhuman courage. The workers have refused to leave the factory – even those who were tasered and one who suffers from diabetes. This last is despite the fact that the blockade has halted his insulin supplies, so his legs are starting to decompose.
This militancy has stopped the government and the company trying to force entry into the factory. Now the struggle of the Ssangyong workers has become the inspiration for other people suffering from the impact of the current economic crisis and the right wing government's attack on the democratic rights.
This is bad news for the government, which has been experiencing a huge political crisis because of the illegal passing of the media law favouring righ twing newspapers.
But even though the fighting spirit of the Ssangyong workers is still high, and the public opinion is still on their side – the workers desperately need concrete solidarity from other workers, and especially car workers.
But the leaderships of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the Metal Workers' union, to which the Ssangyong workers belong, haven't seriously build the solidarity. Instead, the union has acted as a mediator between the workers and the company.
Fortunately, other sections of workers and ordinary people started to organise solidarity strikes and rallies. These, combined with the unflinching struggle of the Ssangyong workers, forced the government and the company to offer partial concessions that they refused to consider before.