Veteran labor organizer launches hunger strike for recognition of teachers’ union

Posted on : 2017-12-05 17:06 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
The Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union is demanding that the government restore its legal status
Cho Chang-ik
Cho Chang-ik

Cho Chang-ik went on his first hunger strike in July 1989. He thought that the democratization movement represented by the demonstrations in June 1987 would completely transform the world. But the Roh Tae-woo administration dismissed 1,527 instructors who were members of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU), which was not legally recognized as a union. And thus Cho, who was a 30-year-old ordinary teacher, joined more than 600 other teachers on a futile hunger strike and sit in which led to his dismissal that same year. Today, Cho is the chairman of the KTU.

Cho began his second hunger strike on Nov. 1, but after just 16 days he was hospitalized for health reasons. And now on Dec. 4, he launched his third hunger strike. While 28 years have passed since his first hunger strike, he believes that the KTU is in a similar position as it was back in 1989. On Oct. 2013, the administration of Park Geun-hye warned the KTU that it would lose its legal status because it had retained nine terminated teachers on its rolls, and eventually that is exactly what happened. Cho was reinstated to his job in 1994, but last year his name went back on the list of terminated teachers.

While Moon Jae-in was swept into the presidency by the candlelit rallies, his administration has not been quick to tackle this issue, either. “It’s hard for me to understand why President Moon keeps waiting to redress the damages to the KTU even as he pushes so hard to tackle corruption by the Park administration. Since the new administration came to power, the KTU has tried to regain legal status through peaceful means – we’ve shaved our heads and prostrated ourselves and held a tent protest on Gwanghwamun Plaza for 52 days. But we can’t wait for an answer from the government any longer,” Cho said during an interview with the Hankyoreh on Dec. 4.

So during a union-wide referendum held from Dec. 6 to 8, the KTU decided to launch an all-out campaign against the government. 72% of members voted, 77% of them in favor of the campaign. As part of the campaign, KTU teachers will be using their yearly leave to clock out early on Dec. 15, which is the toughest legal option at their disposal.

Cho thinks that the KTU’s illegal status could be easily resolved, as long as the government is willing. Since the Ministry of Employment and Labor used an administrative order to strip the KTU of its legal status under the previous administration, all the current government needs to do is cancel that order, he said. The Moon administration, however, has indicated that it will wait for the Supreme Court to rule on a lawsuit filed by the KTU requesting that its legal status be reinstated. So far, the KTU has lost in the district court and on appeal.

On top of the fact that there is no telling when the Supreme Court will rule, the KTU is concerned that an unfavorable ruling could complicate matters even further. The union is also desperate to dispense with this issue in the administration’s initial phase, while there is still momentum for reform. Cho contends that the administration’s tendency to put the union’s legal status on the back burner is politically motivated.

“The current government has been taken captive by approval ratings. It appears to be trying to delay decisions that might drag down its approval rating until after the local elections next year and to wrongly assume that the KTU’s legal status is a key part of that. How can it manage to run the country if it disappoints and alienates its active supporters? I’m earnestly asking the Moon administration to deal with the KTU legal status issue for its own success, instead of sending mixed signals about it,” Cho said.

The KTU is also calling for changes to the instructor assessment and performance-based pay system, which, it argues, breeds division among teachers by ranking them and fundamentally saddles teachers with the sole responsibility for raising test scores. The KTU also holds that teachers should be fully guaranteed the three rights of labor, including the right to go on strike. “The KTU has been oppressed by previous administrations as an ‘illegal union’ because it has advanced the agenda of democracy in the classroom for several decades. Backed by the zeitgeist of the candlelit rallies, the Moon administration needs to untie this complicated knot,” Cho said.

By Hong Seok-jae, staff reporter

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