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Another shocking thing about September 11

Hans Engelberts

Korean heroes of workers' rights

The Public Services International (PSI) Executive Board meeting and Asian and Pacific Regional Conference were held in Korea last November to show support for the struggle of Korean workers and, in particular, public service workers for basic trade union rights.

In PSI we are proud to be associated from the beginning with the long struggle of the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the affiliates of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) for proper trade union rights. Many are the letters of protest we have sent to the governments over the years, and numerous the appeals we have had to make in order to release people from prison for what, in other countries, is considered a normal trade union job. We pay tribute to the many trade union leaders and activists who are willing to sacrifice so much, some of them up to ten years in prison, just to obtain normal worker rights, such as freedom of association and collective bargaining.

The workers in Korea are a shining example for their colleagues in many other countries in Asia, where authoritarian governments still refuse the most basic trade union rights. They are an example, not only in fighting for basic trade union rights, but also in fighting the market-friendly, neo-liberal policies of the government.

The Kim Dae-Jung regime has created an ideological climate in which "restructuring" is accepted as an "absolute good". The struggles and efforts of workers and trade unions in response to issues of restructuring are branded as sabotaging the "national effort to overcome the economic crisis". In the last three years, the public sector has been the direct target of the government's policy of structural adjustment. Some 131,000 public sector workers lost their jobs as a result. On top of this, an even greater number of trade unionists have been imprisoned under the government of Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Kim Dae-Jung, in his three and a half years in office, than was the case during the five years of the previous government.

The PSI participants in the meetings in Seoul were full of admiration for these heroes of workers' rights.

Meanwhile, in the US ...

The whole world now also recognises the heroic efforts of public safety officers in New York on September 11. Two days after the disaster, a bill giving police officers and fire fighters employed by states and municipalities the right to form and join unions was introduced in the US Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. In addition to the right to collective bargaining over wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment, the measure would require employers to recognise their public safety workers' unions and set up a system for arbitration and mediation. While many states give public safety workers the right to organise, 18 states do not and some limit bargaining authority.

On 6 November, Republicans in the Senate blocked the Democratic effort to guarantee collective bargaining rights to fire fighters, police and other public safety workers. In a sometimes emotional debate, Democrats argued that public safety workers had earned the right to form unions and bargain for better pay following their heroic activities after the terrorist attacks. Republicans countered that this would tilt the scale in favour of unionisation, jeopardize the future of volunteer fire organisations and erode the longstanding rights of state and local governments to set their own rules for public safety workers. The vote was 56 to 44 to proceed with the proposal, but that was four votes short of the 60 needed to approve the measure. As a result the proposal was withdrawn.

How many more?

How many more national heroes will have to give their life to get full workers' rights? How many more Korean trade unionists will have to serve prison sentences? One thing is certain: with the support of PSI, they will continue not only their normal work, but also their fight for basic rights.

Hans Engelberts is the General Secretary and Director of Publications for the Public Services International. This article was first published in Focus, a PSI journal published four times a year in English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Swedish. For breaking news and links on the repression of the Korean trade union movement, go to

The Public Services International, or PSI, is an international trade union federation for public sector unions. The union is an officially recognised non-government organisation (NGO) for the public sector within the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and has accreditation with UNESCO, ECOSOC and UNCTAD. PSI also works in association with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).


More than 600 public service trade unions in more than 140 countries make up PSI. Together, these unions represent more than 20 million workers. Since 1907, PSI has organised public service workers in many different occupations. Today, health workers, firefighters, workers in public utilities, child minders, civil servants, judges, food inspectors, social workers and a large number of other professional groups make up PSI's membership.

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Suggested citation

Engelberts, Hans, 'Another shocking thing about September 11', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, March 2002.<>


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