Taking Down Samsung’s No Union Policy: The Samsung Electronics Service Union

On July 29th, The International Strategy Center’s Policy and Research Coordinator Dae-Han Song and Communications Coordinator Hwang Jeong Eun met with Sunyoung Kim, the chair of the Samsung Electronic Service Union for the Yeongdeungpo District in Seoul of the Korean Metal Workers Union to talk about the union’s struggle and their trailblazing as the first union recognized by Samsung.


Can you give us a brief background to the Samsung Electronic Service Union?
We started the union because of the harsh working conditions. Sometimes, we might work 12 to 13 hours a day, and still not make the minimum wage. You might come to work on Saturday or Sunday from 8 to 6 PM and come out on the minus. Why? Because you didn’t get paid, but you still had to pay for lunch and gas. You even had to pay for your own training from Samsung. In addition, our work is dangerous, whether it is installing air-conditioning, or climbing a wall, or working with live electricity. Despite these dangers, the company doesn’t provide any safety equipment. We have to wear neckties even when working with moving parts. They force us to wear dress shoes even when working on a roof in the rain. Why? For the sake of maintaining a clean and professional image.

How can a person work 12 to 13 hours a day and not even get paid the minimum wage?
It’s a system based on commission. There is no base pay. You are basically a freelancer. You come in to work, and if there is work you work if there is not then you just stay in the office. However, while a real freelancer can decide whether or not to show up to the office, we have a specified clock in and clock out time. When there is work, we just keep working. In the summer, there’s a lot of work: air conditioning, refrigerators. So, we just keep on working until everything is done. Not only is working such long hours exhausting, it is also exhausting doing so in the summer heat. Sometimes you don’t get home until 12 AM and can’t even rest on the weekends. That’s when we make our money that carry us through the fall, winter, spring when there is little work. In these off seasons we might sometimes just get one or two calls in a day and since we get paid by commission, if we don’t work, we don’t get paid.

You have to at least pull off 5 or 6 jobs a day to make 1.5 million (about $1,500) a month. And that doesn’t include gas, your tools, your training which you have to pay out of pocket. I’ve worked at Samsung Electronics Service for about 15 years. So, in some ways, I am part of the upper echelons of the workers. I made 50 to 60 million won a year on average. So, the pay was enough. I worked hard and worked until late. I also accumulated a lot of know-how and developed relationships with customers. But, I was part of the minority, maybe I fell within the 15 percent of highly skilled and experienced workers. The rest, they are not in the middle, they are all at the bottom. There is no middle in this system. There are those that make a lot and those that don’t make enough. Those on the lower levels make about 20 million a year. That’s why the conditions are so poor.

The commission system pits us against each other. If I finish my work just a little faster, then I can finish two instead of one. The majority don’t have enough steady work. There’s not much one can do, other then parcel out one or two of my assignments to them. The company is unwilling to take responsibility for these workers.

Above: Workers pay their respects to Jeong Bum Choi Below: A tribute to Ho Seok Yeom the second worker to take his life

When you are organizing a union, you have to build worker solidarity, but the system itself creates competition among the workers. Did that make it difficult to organize?
If we look at our system, we can see that it breeds selfishness. In the Yeongdeungpo branch, we originally organized 80 workers. But, it collapsed and only 24 members remain. The owner of the service branch planted the seeds of doubt: “Do you really think you can beat Samsung?” “Just do your work properly.” “I’ll give you more work if you quit the union.” “I’ll give you less work if you don’t.” So, 70% of the union members dropped out.

When Choi Jong Beom killed himself, it had a huge impact on us. Before, we were just a Kakaotalk (a smartphone messaging application) union, but after his death those of us that remained began to meet in Seoul. So, while there weren’t many of us left, our union grew stronger. While we might be a fraction of what we were in the beginning, we are stronger now than before.

c2e60c1a30ff1e54e4294f80998ca636_wcYr53jSoYB43n2t1cCxeV8tuG2FNbZvWhat are your demands?
At first we were demanding that we be made into Samsung regular workers. Samsung was directing us, training us, so it just made sense that we would be working directly under them. Now our demands are just improved working conditions. Being an engineer, fixing things with my hands, was my childhood dream. But, the company only cares about using us to make money. We want Samsung to appreciate and nurture our skills. That means paying us decently. We are asking for a basic wage in addition to the commission. Ultimately, we want to move towards a fixed monthly wage. Workers get stressed not knowing how much they will make in a particular month. Also, we want people’s skill and experience to be acknowledged. Right now, there is no difference given between a one year or a twenty year worker. They are treated as the same. After the collective bargaining, about 50% of our problems have been solved.

Where is the struggle right now?
When we went back to our service centers after concluding an agreement, the owners of the service centers say they will not recognize the union. They refuse to honor it. Under the agreement, if workers bring their receipts for gas, cell phone usage, for their meals, then the owner needs to reimburse them. The owners refuse to recognize this and just say, “We paid for it already. I’m going to keep paying you as I did before.” So, we are struggling against the branch owners. But ultimately, this isn’t about the branch owners, it’s about Samsung who is directing them.

What’s next?
So right now we have about 1,600 Samsung Electronics Service union members. Previously, we had about 6,000. Many left because they are afraid of what the company will do to them. So our focus will be to organize them. It hasn’t yet sunk in, but people around us tell us we should be proud that we, subcontracted workers, broke Samsung’s 76 year union-free history. I think it is these people that stood in solidarity with us that played a huge part in our victory. Many of them are more experienced union organizers, and we are a new union, so these seniors give us guidance on where we should go, how we should organize workers and the non-unionized centers. On August, we are going to organize the non-unionized centers.

Have things improved?
So according to the collective bargain agreement, the company needs to follow the labor laws. That means that if we work over 40 hours a week, we should get overtime. We are supposed to get paid holidays. And as I mentioned before, the company should refund 100% of the costs of gas, parking, equipment, cell phone, and leased cars. We also won a basic 1.2 million won a month wage. But, the best thing is that the owner can’t unilaterally change work policy: he has to negotiate with the union. They can’t just take us for granted. I mean all this should just be the given.

So what’s still missing?
The first thing is that we don’t yet have a 100% fixed wage. The second one is that the collective bargaining agreement contains vague and difficult to understand wording. We are an inexperienced union and because we rushed the negotiations, there is a lot in the contract that is vague and up for interpretation. That’s what we were struggling for in the 40 day occupation at Seocho and what we are fighting for at the branch level now: a more clear collective bargaining agreement.

How can people in Korea or abroad help?
I learned that there are 10 million irregular workers. In the case of Samsung and LG, they are a world class corporation, but in their pursuit of profit they outsource and sub-contract. This wouldn’t be a problem if they paid decent wages and created a stable system. But that’s not the reality. Companies like Samsung are shiny and nice on the outside, but the inside is different. When I tell people about the working conditions that I face, they ask me, “Are you telling me that there are still companies like that?” I want to tell the world about the conditions we face working in these corporations so that we can stop them guard our rights. I want to be a dignified worker that can proudly wear the company logo on my shirt.

Now because of our struggle, those that install internet for SK, or LG U+ they are also awakening to the injustice of their situation. They are realizing how similar and unjust their work is which does not guarantee a basic wage. I want to let those in Korea and abroad know our conditions so that we can improve them.


A True Education: The Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union

On July 23, the International Strategy Center’s Policy and Research Coordinator Dae-Han Song met with the Secretary General of the Seoul Gang-Seo Elementary Schools Branch of the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union (KTU) Jung Ki Young who is also a teacher at the Shineun Innovation Elementary School. We discussed the KTU’s history and its struggles to transform Korean education.


Can you briefly tell us about the history of the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union?
There were some stirrings among teachers ever since Park Chung Hee, but we made our big debut as an organization after the 1987 Great June Uprising with the formation of the National Teacher’s Association. In 1989, we became the Korean Teacher and Education Worker’s Union. In response to the formation of our union, the government fired 1,527 teachers. It sent shockwaves through the public. Teachers, who had some of the stablest jobs, had been fired en masse just for starting a union. It was the first time something like this had ever happened. They were eventually re-instated 3-4 years later when Kim Young Sam took office. Yet, during the period they were unemployed, the employed teachers supported them while they actively built up the union. We became a legal union recognized by the school system in 1999. In our heyday, we numbered 100,000. Now, we are about 60,000. And as you know, repression started with the Lee Administration, and it has continued to today under the Park Administration who stripped us of our union status in June.

Why the repression during the Lee and, now, under the Park Administration?
Well, our goal is to reform the education system. We are fighting for “true education.” Among our demands is one for greater transparency in the management of private schools. Private schools carry a lot of debt. Behind the private schools are the chaebols who use the schools to money making ventures and as a way to launder their money. So the KTU has been in the forefront of demands for greater transparency in these schools. With over 60,000 members who are public servants and regular workers, we are a fairly powerful union. So, of course we can’t but incur the hatred of those in power. The bill for greater transparency in private schools has yet to pass the National Assembly.


What is “True Education”?
Korea’s education was shaped by the industrialization of the 70s and 80s. Its purpose was training industrial workers. It wasn’t about the love of learning and knowledge; it was all about doing well in the university entrance examination. From elementary to high school, the goal was getting into college. As education became all about grades and exam scores, the kids that didn’t do well would give up; parents would obsess about grades; teachers would simply focus on the kids that did well.

People say things have changed. Maybe, but the overall framework still remains the same. The driving mind-set of students is still about competition. How can I beat the other students around me and become number one so that I can enter a good university. Now, more than ever, a student’s success in school is tied to his or her parents’ economic status and educational background. Since the 1980s with the explosion of private education, parents that can afford it, and even those that can’t, hire tutors for their children or send them to after school academies. They do anything that can give their children an edge up. And of course this not only burdens the parents financially but also the students that live under constant pressure and stress. There used to be a saying: “Even a black hen can lay white eggs.” In other words, even if your parents were poor, if you had talent and worked hard you could still go to a good university. Now, it’s just an outdated saying. Parents suffer under the great financial pressure; students suffer under the great academic pressure. When our society is so competitive and pressurized, of course we are going to have student suicides and violence. We want to change all this. We want to eventually get rid of the college entrance examination. That is what we mean by “true education.”

What is the alternative?
Well, we would come up with that together. Recently, with the trend of innovation schools picking up, there has been great interest in Finland’s education system which focuses on cooperation and group learning through discussion. After school ends, students focus on sports or their interests and hobbies. In Korea, even when school ends, students have to go to their tutors or their afterschool academies.

Why are we like this?
I think it has to do with our history. We suffered through Japanese colonialism, and then right afterwards through US military occupation, and then through dictatorships. In some ways, we never had the opportunity to become our own protagonists and create something for ourselves. We always just had to take things as they were. So, we just followed and believed whatever those on top said. And as capitalism developed, our education changed alongside it. In addition, many of those in power are not so squeaky clean. Many were collaborators during Japanese colonization, then state functionaries during the US military occupation and dictatorships. These are the types of people that are running our government.

What do parents and students think about all this?
In the June 4th regional and municipal elections, progressives won 13 (out of the 17) superintendents of education seats. I think this reflects a shift in parents’ consciousness. Yet, while a lot has changed, parents’ mentalities has also remained the same. I teach at an innovation school. My students’ parents love that their kids are learning outside by farming, observation, and activities. Their kids want to come to school even in their days off. But, at the same time the parents worry: “Are my kids playing too much?” “Shouldn’t they be studying more?” They worry about their kid’s scholastic abilities. “How much do they know?” “How well can they solve problems?” And it makes sense that they worry and think like this. After this innovation school, they will have to survive in a regular school. This is all they know. Because this is how things were always done.

Can you talk about innovation schools?
While it’s only recently become popular, innovation schools actually have a much longer history. They first emerged in Gyeonggi Province. In many of the small towns and cities, as people moved away from farming and into larger cities, you start to see a disappearance of students. As a result, the local governments start to close down schools or merge them together. To counteract this trend, KTU teachers started going to these schools. They wanted to go there and create something different from our current education. For example, students would work together with farmers, parents, and local communities to organize and run a festival. It wasn’t just about a school as a school, but a school as part of a community. They would farm with their students and hold lessons outside. When the city put out a call for projects, the school would submit a proposal and create an orchestra. As word got around about these schools, many of the students living in the cities that couldn’t adjust to their traditional schools would come seeking out these schools. All of a sudden, you start to see an increase in the number of students. So we started to save these schools. That was the “save the small schools” movement by the KTU. Eventually, the Superintendent of Education in Gyeonggi, Kim Sang Gon, noticed this and realized that if nurtured well, this type of education could become big. So, he named this movement “innovation education.”

For example, in the innovation school where I teach, we don’t “teach to the test.” Rather, we are an arts and culture program that uses woodwork and theater to teach students. We let them touch and play with things.

What has been the impact on students of this innovation education?
In Gyeonggi Province, it’s been about 6 years. Did it succeed? Did it fail? It’s too early to tell. Recently, they chose a few random innovation schools and did surveys through random sampling. The results are promising. Compared to other kids, those in the innovation schools had a greater confidence about their mastery of the knowledge. They also had a greater sense of accomplishment and felt more positive about their futures.

What do you think is the connection between education and democracy?
That’s a hard question. One thing everybody mentions about the Sewol Tragedy is that the students were told to stay put as the ship was sinking. Now, I’ve been teaching elementary school for about 15 years. It aches my heart to reflect back in all those times when I told my students to just be quiet and sit down, or told them to just follow the rules, or to just stay put. There was so much to teach, yet so little time. There was only one of me, and many of them. A teacher has a certain ambition for her students about teaching them as much as possible. We want them to absorb knowledge as fast as possible. That’s because we also were students, and generally teachers were good students. That’s how we learned to study.

It wasn’t too long ago, when I had started to think differently about education, that I’ve started to find ways of creating hope with my students. How can I teach students to teach themselves?

The legal basis for the KTU losing its union status was its policy of retaining fired teachers as members. What is the significance of such policy to the government and to the KTU?
When KTU became a recognized union in 1999, our union charter contained a provision that allows fired teachers to still remain as members. At that time it was not a problem. There is, however, a Teacher’s Union Law which states that only employed teachers can be part of a union. In that regard, that provision in our charter clashed with this law. Yet, from our point of view, a law is not carved in stone: laws should change with changing societal conditions. We are saying that this law is not fit for these times. There is no case like this in the world. Even in the United States, substitute teachers, teachers, and fired teachers – they can all remain in the union.

Why is this so important?
Well, we are also workers, so we should have the same rights as other workers. The Railroad Workers Union is able to retain its fired members. This allows the union to support the fired workers financially. We are also the same. We are a worker’s union.

The last time that the Department of Labor told us that they would revoke our union status if we did not change our charter, we did a lot of soul searching. We decided to put it up for a vote: Should we change our charter or should we allow fired teachers to remain? 70% of members voted to retain the fired teachers. We were shocked at the level of support. So then we were like, we know what our members want. Let’s get it on.

So what’s next?
We see hope in the newly elected progressive superintendents of education. As innovation schools take off, this will create greater spaces for us to engage with parents, educate them about the work that the KTU is doing, and win them over to our side.

Free Palestine!

Nearly 5,000 Palestinian homes have been destroyed in Israel’s 4 week bombardment and military incursions into the Gaza Strip. Over 1,400 Palestinians have been killed, 8,200 have been wounded, 80% of them civilians. Much of Gaza is living on less than two hours of electricity a day; medicine and safe water are becoming scarce; basic foodstuffs cost five times what they cost three weeks ago. Israel has claimed its actions are in self-defense against Hamas rocket fire. Yet, 90% of these homemade rockets are neutralized mid-air by Israel’s “iron dome” missile defense system. To date, 3 Israeli civilians and 36 soldiers have been killed.

Israel and Hamas have agreed to a 72 hour ceasefire starting Friday to negotiate a longer term ceasefire. Yet, given Israel’s military and economic dominance, a just solution for Palestinians can only be achieved when the world stands in solidarity with Palestine and pressures Israel. This requires that we go beyond the causes and effects of the current conflict and into the historical root of the issue: Israel’s colonization of historic Palestine, its control over the West Bank and Gaza and Palestinian struggle for land, the right to return, and equal rights and liberties.

The green areas indicate Palestinian land; the white areas indicated Israeli land.

The green areas indicate Palestinian land; the white areas indicated Israeli land.


Zionist Colonization and Expansion
In 1882, the first wave of Zionists began to settle in Palestine. By 1914, the Jewish population was 60,000; the Arab one, 683,000. In 1917, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration announcing support for a “Jewish national home in Palestine” thus further encouraging Jewish settlement in Palestine. With the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in 1933, Jews fled Europe; many of them migrating to Israel and dramatically increasing Jewish migration. During Zionist settlement, clashes broke out with Palestinian farmers displaced by Zionist settlers. In 1947, when the United Nations (who were ruling over Palestine) gave the Israelis 56% of historic Palestine to Zionist settlers, the Zionist settlers were 32% of the population and owned 6% of the land. When Israel declared statehood in 1948, the Arab states refused to recognize it on the grounds that the Zionists were a colonial presence.

In 1948, the Arab states attacked Israel. After pushing back the attack, Israel went on the offensive and expanded its borders past the 1947 UN designated ones. At the end of the war in 1949, Israel occupied 78% of historic Palestine. The remaining 22% was divided between Jordan and Egypt: East Jerusalem and the West Bank went to Jordan; the coastal plain of the city of Gaza went to Egypt. The State of Israel displaced 700,000 Palestinians (half the Palestinian population); 75% of them fled military actions by Zionist militias. This is the basis of Palestinian’s demand for the right to return to their lands as stipulated in the UN Human Rights Declaration.

Israel Takes It All
In 1967, after winning the Six Day’s War, Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. During Israel’s almost 50 year occupation, Palestinians have endured expanding Israeli settlements, more walls separating and enclosing communities and limiting movement, curfews, detention, torture, bombardment, and economic isolation from the world.

West Bank
After 1993, (under the Oslo Accord) partial control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was ceded to the Palestinian National Authority (PA) made up of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) with its main group Fatah led by Yasir Arafat. It was divided into area A, B, C with the PA given some authority over areas A and B, and Israel maintaining full control over area C which

Palestinians wait at an Israeli military checkpoint at dawn on their work commute.

Palestinians wait at an Israeli military checkpoint at dawn on their work commute.

crisscrosses areas A and B and monopolizes land near the Jordan River. This means that there is no contiguous body of land under the PA authority. In the everyday lives of West Bankers, this means that to get from one point in the West Bank to another they are forced to wait one to several hours to get through Israeli security checkpoints. Area C’s monopoly of the Jordan River means that Israeli settlements irrigate their farms and use four times the water Palestinians use whose water is rationed by Israel and who are limited to rain fed agriculture. Israel has encouraged the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank through subsidies, tax breaks, infrastructure, and security.

breaking up of west bank

Gaza Strip
The majority of those living in the Gaza Strip are refugees from Israel. In June 2001, a wall was built between Gaza and Israel and, in 2004, between Gaza and Egypt. With the evacuation of Israeli settlements and military from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and Israeli control of Gaza’s air-space, coastal waters, and territorial borders, the Gaza Strip has been likened to the world’s largest and most populous open air prison.

Part of the wall enclosing the Gaza Strip

Part of the wall enclosing the Gaza Strip

Palestinians in Israel
About 150,000 Palestinians remained in what became the State of Israel in 1948; now, there are over 1.4 million (about 20% of the population). Palestinians are treated as second class citizens with far fewer resources devoted to their education, health care, jobs, and social services. The Palestinian struggle has demanded equal rights and liberties for these Palestinians in Israel.

About 800,000 Palestinians were driven from Israel during the 1947-49 War. In the 1967 War, 440,000 Palestinians were displaced. Many of them now live in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. Palestinian refugees are a majority in Jordan. The total Palestinian refugee population now numbers 5.6 million.

Peace Process
The peace process has been an upward hill battle for Palestinians seeking self-determination often against opportunistic Arab states and always against Israel’s acquisitive designs for the West Bank. Israel, with its military and economic dominance and full backing by the United States, has always maintained the dominant position. Much like with South African Apartheid, only international solidarity and pressure can shift the balance.

Camp David Accord
The Camp David Accord was a 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt brokered by President Jimmy Carter. It emerged out of Egypt’s unilateral recognition of the State of Israel. As a result, Egypt got back some of the lands it lost. Yet, it shortchanged the Palestinian cause. The Camp David Accord is seen as a betrayal by Egypt to secure military funds and aid from the US and regain lost lands while pretending to do help Palestinians.

Many of those that participated in the Intifada were children and teenagers throwing rocks at Israeli military.

Many of those that participated in the Intifada were children and teenagers throwing rocks at Israeli military.

The Oslo Accords
Faced with the emergence of the radical Hamas and the Intifada (“shaking off”), Israel was forced to negotiate a deal with the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1993. As a result of the Oslo Accord, the Palestinian Liberation Organization established the Palestinian National Authority and ceded some authority of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Yet, ultimately, negotiations collapsed with Israel’s refusal to return to its pre-1967 borders (i.e. unwillingness to give up East Jerusalem); its insistence on annexing large parts of the West Bank; and its refusal to accept legal or moral responsibility for Palestinian refugees.

2002 Arab League Peace Plan
In 2002, at the Beirut summit of the Arab League, all the Arab states except Libya endorsed a peace initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia. The plan offered an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, including recognition of Israel, peace agreements and normal relations with all Arab states, in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied since 1967, including the Golan heights, “a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem” and “establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as the capital.” The head of the PLO has enthusiastically endorsed this plan, while most factions of the Hamas rejected it.

A Just Solution
Whatever solution the Palestinian people desire and negotiate with Israel, moral and historical clarity of the issue is imperative. While ultimately the political conditions may influence the ultimate solution, historical on this issue is important. Given the history, it seems that at Palestinians a just solution must include:

  • End of the Israeli settlement and military control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
  • The right of return (as guaranteed in the UN Human Rights Declaration) to Palestinians displaced by the 1948 war.
  • Equal rights and liberties to Palestinians in Israel.

International Campaign for Boycotting, Divesting, and Sanctions Against Israel
One way in which the people around the world have been expressing solidarity with Palestine has been by pressuring Israel through boycotting Israeli products, divesting from Israeli companies or those that aid it, and pushing for sanctions. It is a tactic inspired by the similar BDS campaign that built international pressure against Apartheid South Africa. The recent bombings and deaths in Palestine have brought this tactic into the public light once again. It is our responsibility that even when the bombings and massacre stop, that we not forget the injustice that is the occupation of Palestine and that we continue to fight to free Palestine.



“Across the Wall: Israeli Settlement Bus Routes.” VisualizingPalestine.org. Accessed August 1, 2014. http://visualizingpalestine.org/infographic/across-the-wall

Joei Beinin and Lisa Hajjar. “Palestine, Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.” Middle East Research and Information Project. February 2014. Accessed August 1, 2014 at http://www.merip.org/primer-palestine-israel-arab-israeli-conflict-new

“Imagine a Segregated Road System Where the Color or your License Plate Dictates Which Roads You Can Drive on.” VisualizingPalestine.org. Accessed August 1, 2014 at http://visualizingpalestine.org/infographic/segregated-roads-west-bank