“It was just a legitimate trade union activity, but many people had to die to increase Yoon Suk-yeol’s approval rating. Many became victims of Yoon’s dictatorship of prosecutors, and innocent people have been imprisoned. These are the people of Korea. Should the innocent people be sacrificed by electing the wrong president? Please break down the Yoon Suk-yeol regime.” _excerpt from the will of Yang Hoe-dong, the third district leader under the Gangwon Province branch of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions-affiliated Korean Construction Workers’ Union (KCTU-KCWU)
On May 1, international workers’ day, Yang Hee-dong, a construction worker, self-immolated, leaving the will above. Yang, who told his comrades to ensure a world where workers are the owners, passed away the next day. His comrade said, “He was a comrade who went around negotiating here and there to find a job for a union member without even getting his share.” What drove Yang to his death?
When Yoon was running for president, he used expressions such as Selfishness of Vested Unions, and Union Cartel that Sacrifices the Future. His view of trade unions as having predatory vested interests did not change after becoming president. At a cabinet meeting last November, he said, “The subway unions have higher incomes and better working conditions compared to the absolute majority of wage earners, the true underdogs (who are not in the trade unions) in the industrial field. We will improve the law and system so that we can take better care of the truly weak in the unorganized industrial field.” Yoon’s modifiers and negative remarks about unions are continuously devolving. In his New Year’s address, the expression Aristocratic Trade Union appeared, and at a cabinet meeting in February, Yoon framed up the word Construction Bullying (an act of violence at construction sites). “The prosecution, the police, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, and the Ministry of Employment and Labor cooperate to strongly crack down on organized illegal activities such as extortion and violence at construction sites,” he said.
The image of unions that Yoon projects to society is blatant. Unions are predatory and they have selfish vested interests with higher incomes and better working conditions, while non-union workers are the real underdogs. And since the government will take a hard line against this predatory organizations with vested interest, you should become a true weakling, a non-union worker, if you want to avoid confrontation with the government. However, the Yoon government, which says that it is condemnable for workers to work for higher income and better working conditions, blows away specific discussions and promises on how to protect the truly weak, leaving only the frame of “union = vested interests” in the end.
The hatred that the Yoon government consistently exhibits accumulates in society through government policies and media. After Yoon’s order to crack down on Construction Bullying, the police carried out a planned investigation targeting the construction union with a branch of officers who received a special rank promotion. The two ministries also illegally defined union activities and launched an extensive investigation into issues such as monthly wages, compliance with 52 hours, refusal of dangerous work, and demands for employment.
The biased media is doing its part to convey Yoon’s messages by publishing the government’s hatred, the circumstances of the investigation and the opinions of the investigative agencies. According to them, construction unions are illegal and doing incidents of gangster activities. The press did not discuss trade unions or criticize the government’s repression of labor, but served up provocative headlines. In particular, Chosun Media raised the suspicion of aiding and abetting Yang’s self-immolation under the headline, “At the moment the member of the construction union self-immolated, the executive who was with him neither stopped him nor extinguished the fire.” The fact that the powerful press is doing secondary harm to the deceased by taking the lead in distorting reports without even following basic reporting ethics raises doubts about the role of the media.
There is also the problem of the capital behind the media’s construction company-friendly reports and the fream of the construction union as a Construction Bullying. This is because many large construction companies have stakes in media companies. This context cannot be ignored as the reason why it is difficult to see the poor construction problems in the field or the labor problems of construction workers in the media.
At the end of April, ahead of the warrant review of three executives of KCTU-KCWU, including Yang, who was charged with co-extortion, 15 officials from a construction company in the Gangwon area submitted a non-punishment application letter to the court. It stated that the officials were never threatened or coerced by union officials. On the other hand, the police and prosecutors alleged that these companies were victims of blackmail and threats from union officials. Along with the pressure from the investigative agency, the media denounced the members of the construction union in an article titled Construction Bullying. Few media outlets reported the position of union members who were labeled and denounced overnight for construction bullying. The media, which has a significant stake in construction companies, is just an uneven playing field for union members.
Investigations into and rulings on union members give legitimacy to the hatred of labor accumulated in society. It does not matter that the investigation was a pressure investigation carried out by police who got special promotions. It does not even have anything to do with the judgment. It is because if the media continues to cover the investigation, there will be an appearance of guilt leading the public to assume that the union members are guilty. When the court’s conviction is added to repeated investigation reports, the legitimacy is only strengthened.
In conclusion, what drove Yang to his death was the Yoon government, which consistently showed hatred towards workers, the press that only published provocative articles without reporting on the essence of the problem, and the police and prosecutors who conducted coercive investigations to brand the illegality of the union. And in the early morning of May 31, less than a month after Yang set himself on fire due to the government’s suppression of unions and the prosecution’s coercive investigation, Kim Joon-young, secretary general of the Federation of Korean Metalworkers’ Trade Unions, was arrested with blood on his head caused by a beating from police.