Victory in Korea: Teachers’ union wins 7-year fight for recognition

Almost seven years ago – in October 2013 – the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU) came to LabourStart with a problem. The national government had given the union an ultimatum: either it would change its rules to prohibit dismissed or retired teachers from being members of the union, or the union would be deregistered.

At issue were just nine teachers who, according to the government, were illegally members of the 60,000 member union.

Facing the prospect of being outlawed, the union stood its ground. Working together with its national trade union centre, the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the global union for teachers, the Education International, as well as other global and national unions, they launched a LabourStart campaign demanding that the government back down.

Over 10,000 trade unionists from around the world signed up to support the Korean teachers – but the government was adamant. It was intent on breaking a union seen as “left-wing”. The Korean President, Park Geun-hye (daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee) was no friend of the trade unions and had said that “unionised KTU teachers are making this nation RED”.

And it was not only the KTU that faced de-registration; the government also refused to register the KCTU-affiliated Korean Government Employees Union as well.

The campaign we ran made the argument that the decision by the Park government to outlaw the teachers’ union was arbitrary and illegal. It breached both the Korean constitution and the “core conventions” of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Public sector workers in general, and teachers in particular, and often denied their human right to join and form independent trade unions – and not only in Korea. When I was growing up in New York City, it was illegal for teachers to go on strike, and when they did, their leaders would be sent to jail and the union subjected to punitive fines. The “Taylor Law” which prohibited public sector strikes in the state of New York is still on the books, and union leaders are still periodically jailed for violating it.

Park Geun-hye was eventually impeached and removed from office, and her fall from power was described by Public Services International as “not only the culmination of a political scandal involving corruption” but “also a victory built by the trade union movement which, relentlessly, denounced for years the abuses against workers committed by her regime.” The attacks on the teachers union were part of those abuses.

Though the online campaign in 2013 was eventually suspended, the Korean teachers never gave up their fight. And last week, they finally won a historic victory.

The Supreme Court of Korea annulled the decision to delegalise the teachers’ union. According to the Education International, which announced the victory, “This Supreme Court decision on 3 September follows an appeal filed by the KTU to rulings against it by lower courts in June 2014 and January 2016. In his conclusions on the ruling in favour of the KTU, Chief Justice Kim Myeongsu invoked several times the Korean constitution and international labour standards.”

By “international labour standards” the judge was referring to those eight ILO “core conventions” which constitute international labour law and which apply in all countries, even those which have not ratified the specific conventions.

The judge emphasised that the Korean constitution allows all workers to enjoy basic trade union rights. The regulation which cancelled the KTU’s union registration was subordinate to the constitution. The judge added that the government could not dissolve a trade union by administrative order. Therefore, he ruled, the delegalisation of KTU was invalid.

Immediately following the court ruling, the Ministry of Employment and Labour said it would start a process to cancel the annulment “as soon as possible,” in line with the court decision. Though the Supreme Court has passed the buck to lower courts, according to one Korean news report, “the labour minister has the authority to restore the union’s legal status, even before a ruling in a retrial comes out.”

When that takes place, the report continued, “the KTU can exercise its rights to collective bargaining, to calling for the government’s mediation in labor disputes and to reporting unfair labor practices.”

The KTU thanked all those who supported the union in this long fight. In an email I received last week from the KTU’s international officer, Hyunsu Hwang, he reminded me that “LabourStart was in the middle of this seven year-long fight.”

Martin Luther King famously said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It certainly did so in this case.

This article appears in today’s issue of Solidarity.