Monday, January 29, 2007

Suspended sentences, suspicious sentences

1. Vice Chair of the KCTU, and founder of Speculation Watch Korea, Hur Young Gu was a given a suspended sentence for taking part in the KCTU rally against the passing of the legislation on the protection (read expansion) of non-regular work back in December. According to Yonhap news agency:

The Seoul Southern District Court sentenced Huh Yeong-gu, vice chairman of the 770,000-member Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, to two years' suspended imprisonment. Chief rally organizer Park Min was handed a one-and-a-half year sentence.
I'm not sure how suspended sentences work here, but why were they given such lengthy suspended sentences? Perhaps this is a technique for dissuading activists from participating/organizing future protests -- in this sense, if one is arrested again are the lengths of prior suspended sentences taken into account for future sentencing? At any rate, punitive protest policing, lack of democratic participation (the labour bill was passed because of a backroom agreement with the nation's conservative trade union federation and not the KCTU), and ministries obsessed with law and order (home affairs, Justice) to the point of ignoring extremely controversial labour and market reforms that only create unrest especially when done without open consent and with the abuse of executive power (fast track negotiation, secrecy, etc) -- all these things lead to the type of violent protests that we see in Korea so its silly to blame it on higher profile union leaders. If any one has any insights on why the unionists where given such high suspended sentences I'd love to hear it.

2. In case you didn't read Christian's comment on the Hyundai strike, it is over, the workers and management agreed to make up the productivity loss if the bonuses were returned. The biggest damage from the strike, however, was that the conservative media were able to use it to continue to tarnish the reputation of unions in the midst of widening domestic inequality. This was similar to the Asiana strike earlier last year. For me, the strike was pretty straight forward, and in the end the economic norm that was violated from the perspective of both sides-- wages for productivity -- was re-established. This sort of struggle is fairly common, and has nothing to do with greed but rather normative practices in the fordist (if you will) workplace. The media however, are obsessed with portraying workers who take collective action, in whatever form, as wreckers of the nation. Honestly, the Hyundai workers are paid fairly, and have successfully fought for their rights in a time of neoliberal restructuring with makes a lot of workers precarious and, unfortunately, more easily resentful at workers who make a good wage that has to do with their position in the automobile industry and for a large conglomerate -- so, it's not exactly a frontline labour struggle amongst the most vulnerable workers but these struggles are important, at least, for defending what benefits workers do have -- but what I don't understand is why the media should be so effective in turning it into a national issue. The focus here should really be on the unequal effects of neoliberal restructuring: huge profits for some conglomerates and for financial investors at the cost of diminished resources, protections, and wages for most workers and wage earners.

Both the union and the company (for signing an agreement with the workers) were targeted by the media here. Even some former student activists whom I had dinner with at this time complained at how selfish the workers were. I think these sorts criticisms are dangerous however, wages gains or bonuses in line productivity are fairly conservative features of capitalist economies in general and offer no threat to profitability much less social security. However, media reporting that frames even workers' as well as company's normative demands as negative are especially dangerous and basically serve to exclude and limit democratic participation in the economy. Hyundai is evil for even negotiation with workers, Samsung is virtuous cause it has no unions.

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