Dae-Han Song | July 17, 2016
On May 20th, at Han Gwang Ho’s altar in Seoul City Hall Plaza, I interviewed Kim Seung Suk, a fired union member and 15 year worker at Yoosung, who was standing 24 hour guard. On May 24th, at the occupation in front of Hyundai Group’s Headquarters, I interviewed Hong Jong-in, a fired union member, 12 year worker, and former branch president about the Yoosung worker’s struggle.
Hired thugs, union busting consultants, a fake union, bullying by nit-picking, docked pay, lawsuits and fines – Yoosung Enterprise has used it all to smash its branch of the Metal Workers Union. On March 17, after six years of fighting, amidst repression at work and depression at home, union member Han Gwang Ho took his life. Despite the widespread repression and psychological toll on its members, the Yoosung Branch of the Metal Workers Union still stands. It remains the sole union fighting Hyundai’s union smashing campaign. Han’s death has re-fueled their okeulham (indignation) and jeong (love).
Okeulham (ok-eul-ham) is not easily translated into English, perhaps the meaning is lost in the individualism of the English world. At essence, it is the indignation an individual feels at suffering an injustice that is unacknowledged or unaddressed by another individual, a group, or society. It can lead to despair or to struggle. Kim Seung Suk[i] explains how the workplace bullying combined with powerlessness is pushing union members towards suicide: “There are those around me that say Han Gwang Ho was the successful case, ‘how many of us have contemplated and attempted suicide but failed.’” Kim explains how a co-worker found himself on the ledge of his building’s roof unaware of how he got there. “He immediately committed himself to a hospital,” adds Kim. As for Kim, now he leans on drinking more and while “before, I used to drink to laugh and be happy. Now, when I drink I fight with strangers.”
But okeulham can also fuel revolt. It is how Hong Jong-in[ii], former branch president, explained the 2012 occupation of an overpass in front of the Yoosung factory. Earlier that year, a National Assembly investigation had revealed that Yoosung had hired Changjeong Consulting [a union-busting consultancy] to help smash the union. Okeulham that such damning information would be buried and kept from the public consciousness by the avalanche of the 2012 presidential election led him to occupy a makeshift tent built on the side of the overpass. He remained there unable to stand or walk for 159 days with a noose wrapped around his neck, threatening to jump if anyone attempted to chase him away. He came down when the company promised a negotiated solution. His legs had atrophied to their bones, and he spent the next three months going from his wheelchair and to crutches before walking. The negotiated solution proved a false promise, and so six months later, he was on top of a billboard tower by the Yoosung factory. After 129 days, he incurred a slipped disk preventing him from walking. Once again the promise of a negotiated solution proved false.
Okeulham can keep one going. “We have fought this long. It is too okeul-hada if we give up now. We have to see this fight to the end,” remarks Kim. This indignation is what distinguishes those that continue with the democratic union from those that joined the company one. The company union was formed early in the fight. The fight started on May 18 of 2011 when the union went on strike after the company failed to keep its promise of ending the overnight shift. An investigation would later reveal meetings and an email where Hyundai directed Yoosung, an important subcontractor for its engine parts, to smash the union. That same night, the company shut down the factory. Two months later, after a law allowing multiple unions in a work site went into effect, the company established its own union. The factory was re-opened; the workers were reinstated starting with those who’d switched to the new union. The strategic positions in the production were given to them, allowing production even amidst a strike by the democratic union. “The character of the fight changed. It wasn’t just about workers against management but also about company union workers against the democratic union workers,” explains Hong. I ask what distinguishes those that switched sides and those that didn’t. It is okeulham, but it is also jeong.
Jeong is love and affection. “The union members have developed jeong for one another,” explains Hong. With over 300 members (against the 280 or so for the company union), the democratic union still retains a majority of the workers in the factory. The company bullies the democratic union members to switch unions by instigating them into fights recorded by hidden cameras which are then doctored to fine or prosecute. It tallies the times they go on break or to the bathroom and docks those times from their pay. All, while the company union members receive preferential treatment such as overtime. Despite the psychological toll of such harassment, Hong believes his union’s majority is solid. “We look out after each other by supporting and fundraising for each other. We make sure none of us give up.”
Addressing international readers, Hong explains: “The Hyundai group is among the top five auto companies in the world. I want to tell people that when they purchase a Hyundai car, they are giving money that is used to destroy unions and to repress workers.” He then wonders about the possibility of people around the world picketing in front of Hyundai dealerships. “Then not just Yoosung, but other unions would face better conditions.”
When interviewing struggles, I always finish by asking where hope lies. Kim answers, “If we keep fighting until the end, then we will surely win.”
[i] Kim Seung Suk is a 15 year Yoosung worker. He was fired 5 years ago and is currently standing 24 hour guard to prevent Han Gwang Ho’s altar from being dismantled by police.
[ii] Hong Jong-in is a 12 year Yoosung worker and the previous Yoosung branch president. He was fired 5 years ago and spent 159 days occupying the side of a bridge and 129 days occupying the top of a billboard tower.