Clive Tillman reports on the increasing use of violent attacks on unionised workers by management hired thugs

Locked out workers at the SJM plant in Ansan

On the morning of July 27 hundreds of armour clad thugs from a private strikebreaking firm raided the site of a peaceful protest against a management imposed lockout at the SJM car part factory in Ansan, South Korea. Thirty four workers were injured and many were taken to hospital for treatment of serious injuries. The private strikebreakers were fitted in full riot gear with helmets, shields, sharp iron parts and meter long clubs. They sprayed fire extinguishers to obscure the worker’s vision as they went on a club wielding rampage.

At the exact same time as the brutal attacks in Asan took place workers for another auto part manufacturer, Mando Co, were also locked out by management and brutally attacked. The workers were all members of unions affiliated with the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU).

The July 27 incidents took place after workers at the two companies were involved in collective bargaining over wages. Controlled Industrial action was taken which consisted of short work bans, one day partial strikes and work slowdowns. However management responded by locking out its entire union workplace and unleashing armed thugs onto the workers. This is clearly an example of management manufacturing a crisis in order to violently crush the unions.

The strikebreakers were from a private company called Contactus, they specialise in strikebreaking and union busting. Their main clients are the following three firms: Sangsin Brake, Valeo Electrical, and 3M Korea. All three of these firms have used Contactus to crush their unions within the last two years.

Contactus has grown rapidly since the 2008 election of president Lee Myung-bak from the right wing Grand National Party . Upon election Lee Myung-bak vowed to take a hard line against the unions. Contractus has links with the Lee administration, they were his personal security service during his election campaign. Their legal representation is handled by the law firm Yeonpo- which is comprised of Lee’s political allies. Contactus’ company president, Moon Sung-ho, is a member of the ruling Grand National Party party and it was the party itself that recommended Moon as company president.

Opposition parties and the KMWU have called for an investigation into Contactus and its relationship with the Lee administration because the protection it is receiving for its activities is suspicious. In response to the investigations, Moon Sung-ho resigned as president of Contactus on August 1 and eighteen people have so far been identified for perpetrating violence against workers.

A worker attacked by Contactus thugsBoth of the companies involved in the July 27 incidents, Mando Corp and SJM, manufacture automotive parts of South Korea’s major car makers. There is little doubt that this union busting action was encouraged and/or planned by the major car manufacturers that are contracted to purchase their parts in order to drive down labour costs. In May 2011 workers at the Yoosung factory in Asan (contracted to supply bearings to Hyundai) were in a similar situation, while they were locked out by management a document emerged showing the involvement of Hyundai motors in a premeditated plan to generate a crisis in order to bust the union.

Oh Min-gyu from the Korean Committee of Irregular Workers’ Union explained that this is not an isolated incident. Oh said it is part of a drive by the employers to use violence and dirty tactics to smash unions and contract out labour: “recently, we’ve seen one union after another crumbling at workplaces that had previously maintained good jobs through the efforts of democratic unions …This is not just an issue for that particular company… It has an impact on the entire labour market”.

In the past two years alone there have been numerous examples of companies using this dirty tactics to bring down key unionised workplaces, unions have been smashed in key union strongholds such as Valeo Electrical Systems, Sangsin Brake, KEC and Yoosung.

Lockouts and hired goons have become a trademark method of union busting in South Korea. The workers are locked out and management prolongs the dispute, in the meantime contracted labour and/or scabs are slowly brought in and management controlled yellow unions are formed. It has been reported that Mando Co has already set up a fake company controlled yellow union on July 30 to draw workers away from the KMWU affiliated unions.

The events in Korea are not isolated, they are part of a global drive by capitalism to preserve profits at the expense of workers. The motor vehicle industry has seen some massive disputes in recent years. In 2009 workers at Ssangyong motors in South Korea staged a 77 day occupation against layoffs. In 2010 a massive strike at Honda motors in China suspended production for two weeks. In Delhi, India Maruiti Suzuki workers are in a constant struggle for union recognition and improved working conditions.

Union busting and contracting are part of the drive by the entire capitalist class to make workers pay for the crisis and failure of the system by driving down wages and intensifying the rate of exploitation. In response workers across the globe must respond by organising to defend their wages and conditions.

Clive Tillman is Australia Asia Worker Links East Asia Coordinator.