A vibrant labor movement is essential to democracy. In a global political climate marked by closing space for civil society, growing corporate power and an erosion of democratic institutions, the ability of workers to freely associate is more important than ever. President Han Sang-gyun of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has spent his life fighting for the rights of workers, leading massive labor demonstrations against corporate greed and political corruption, and making many personal sacrifices for the labor movement. For his perseverance in the face of anti-democratic repression and his steadfast defense of workers, the AFL-CIO honors President Han with its annual George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.
President Han has been in jail since December 2015 for defending trade union rights and fighting back against corporate corruption and the repressive government of former President Park Geun-hye. His career as an organizer and labor leader is defined by militant action against long odds. During years of military rule in 1980s South Korea, President Han, a former student activist, helped organize a union in his auto manufacturing plant. In 2008, he was elected chair of his union, and he went on to fight layoffs at the company through a 77-day occupation of the plant with 1,700 other workers. For that, President Han served a three-year sentence in prison. However, he continued to fight for worker rights upon his release, staging a 171-day sit-in near the plant, eventually saving hundreds of jobs and winning severance concessions.
In 2014, President Han was elected president in the first direct vote in KCTU history, promising to organize a general strike against austerity economics and precarious work. Under his leadership, union activists have been at the forefront of the fight for social justice in South Korea. Workers have mobilized against anti-worker labor legislation and government corruption in a series of massive peaceful demonstrations. President Park frequently responded to dissent with police brutality, mass arrests and harsh jail sentences targeted at leaders, including President Han, who bravely continued to organize. The Korean labor movement and civil society eventually forced the ouster of President Park, who later was charged with bribery, abuse of power and other crimes.
Civil society pressure also led to charges against members of President Park’s inner circle, including the heads of a number of powerful Korean conglomerates, for paying or soliciting bribes to sway decisions in the administration. As Korean corporate supply chains pervade many countries and touch consumers everywhere, the global labor movement stands with Korean workers in their fight for a fair global economy and corporate accountability. Their struggle is our struggle—as the global labor movement fights for a voice at work and in society, dignity, fairness and corporate accountability.
After the impeachment and trial of President Park Geun-hye, the Korean labor movement helped usher in a new, more worker-friendly administration under President Moon Jae-in. However, its fight for justice is ongoing. Many activists still are imprisoned and Korean workers continue to struggle in the face of regressive labor laws and a lack of accountability from Korea’s major corporations. Tragically, President Han also still lingers in prison—an injustice that must be reconciled. The AFL-CIO joins the global labor movement, United Nations officials and numerous human rights groups in calling for President Han’s release.
When right-wing governments and their corporate allies threaten basic labor rights and democratic norms, workers must organize and fight back for the common good. President Han’s militancy—from his time fighting cuts in the auto sector to leading a democratic movement in Korea—serves as an inspiration to worker movements everywhere. From the United States, the United Kingdom and the Philippines, to Brazil and Egypt and everywhere workers are under attack, Korean workers have shown that collective action can create real, far-reaching change.
The AFL-CIO recognizes and honors the many personal sacrifices made by President Han and Korean workers and activists. The women and men of the AFL-CIO grant this award to him and pledge ongoing solidarity in the movement for justice, democracy and a pro-worker global economy.