South Korean healthcare workers’ union agrees to sellout contract

A planned strike by public healthcare workers in South Korea was called off hours before it was set to begin on September 1. The workers’ union, negotiating with the Gyeonggi provincial government, agreed to a sellout deal to prevent the walkout, and ensuring that none of the needs of the heavily exploited workers will be addressed.

Korean Health Workers Union rally outside Seoul City Hall to demand increases in the number of nurses assigned to COVID-19 treatment wards and for better treatment of medical personnel, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon) [AP Photo]

The deal covers healthcare workers employed at the Gyeonggi Provincial Medical Center, which includes six public hospitals located in the cities of Suwon, Anseong, Icheon, Paju, Uijeongbu, and Pocheon. Gyeonggi Province is densely populated and surrounds South Korea’s capital city, Seoul.

The agreement negotiated by the Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union (KHMU) includes: a paltry 1.4 percent wage increase, a pledge by health authorities to employ 39 new nurses by the end of September in addition to vague promises for future increases, and a pledge to change evaluations from those conducted by hospital management to evaluations done by the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

None of this comes close to meeting the demands of workers, who overwhelming voted to strike. In a poll conducted between August 22 and 24, 92.4 percent of workers approved a walkout, with a participation rate of 81.1 percent. Total union membership at the six hospitals is 1,271.

Healthcare workers were demanding a 7.6 percent wage increase for 2022, in order to meet their financial needs and to keep up with surging inflation. Consumer prices rose by 6.3 percent in July, the highest in almost 24 years, meaning workers will take a pay cut in real terms. Other demands included the abolition of Gyeonggi Province’s unilaterally imposed staffing guidelines, an increase of 154 new nurses, and a strengthening of the functions and abilities of infectious disease hospitals, which are treating COVID-19 patients.

The union’s sellout deal demonstrates once more that the demands of workers cannot be defended from within the unions. The KHMU is an affiliate of the so-called “militant” Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), which seeks to tie workers to capitalism, and above all the Democratic Party of Korea (DP). The KCTU and its affiliates regularly divide and isolate workers.

The deal follows a well-worn pattern by KCTU affiliates. The union postures as defenders of workers in the run-up to a planned strike. It then enters into last minute or backroom talks to reach a deal. In this case, the KHMU led a pre-strike rally on August 31 outside of the Gyeonggi provincial offices in Suwon to let off steam. It then agreed to the strike’s cancellation only two and a half hours before the scheduled walkout at 7 a.m., ensuring the entire process took place out of the view of its membership.

After the agreement was struck, Gyeonggi Governor Kim Dong-yeon, a Democrat, expressed his “gratitude to labor and management, as well as related officials, who worked all night to come together on this deal.” Kim claimed, “This agreement is the start of creating a better public health system in Gyeonggi Province. Our single goal is to protect the health rights of the province’s residents.”

Yet the removal of nearly all COVID-19 mitigation measures demonstrates that profit, not public health, is the driving concern of the national and provincial governments. Throughout the pandemic, the KCTU has also functioned as an important tool in the ruling class’s agenda of ensuring workers stay on the job. The latest sellout by the KHMU is part of this wider agenda.

Nurses and other healthcare workers have held numerous strikes and protests during the pandemic, as they face overwork and the threat of infection. Last September, the KHMU called off a planned nationwide strike at the last minute after reaching another sellout deal with the government. Despite this, healthcare workers took wildcat actions, which the union promptly isolated and prevented from developing into a broader struggle.

These workers, which include hospital cleaning staff and patient transport workers, face huge stresses as the number of COVID-19 cases has surged in recent weeks. This is due to the removal of nearly all virus mitigation measures, first during the administration of Democrat Moon Jae-in and now under right-wing President Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party.

As of September 1, South Korea, with a population of 52 million, has seen 1,563,582 new COVID-19 infections over a two-week period, second in the world only to Japan, according to the Worldometer COVID-19 tracker. South Korea is also currently the second-leading country in Asia for deaths per million with 11 over the last week, just behind Japan with 16.

In addition, South Korean health experts are warning that a particularly serious flu season may occur this year, pushing the medical system to the brink. Already, the number of hospital visits for influenza reached 4.2 out of 1,000 patients in the third week of August, the highest for that period since 2017. The refusal of the Gyeonggi provincial government to address the serious staffing issues at public hospitals, with the backing of the KHMU, make clear that no steps are being taken to protect the public from an even greater health crisis.

Healthcare workers as well as workers in other industries throughout the country should take their struggles out of the hands of the KCTU and its affiliated unions by forming independent rank-and-file committees in order to defend their interests. South Korean workers should reach out to their class brothers and sisters internationally to build a unified struggle against capitalism, the root cause of all the attacks on workers’ conditions.