Teachers in South Korea are engaged in protest at the government's insistence that the Korean Teachers Union (KTU) bars sacked teachers from membership. Rallies will be held in the capital, Seoul, on October 18th and 19th, and the leadership of the union has embarked on an indefinite hunger strike. A statement from the KTU said that the law which barred dismissed employees from membership was unjust: "What should be changed is not the union's bylaws but the unjust old law that denies basic labor rights."

Hundreds of Korean teachers have been dismissed over the last few years, some for refusing to carry out high stakes testing and others for joining political parties or taking part in protests. The KTU has consistently refused to expel these teachers. On the contrary, the union has been involved in a long battle to put an end to high stakes testing, which in South Korea leads to league tables of schools and financial penalties for those schools who are low down on the tables. 

The KTU faced a long struggle for recognition as a labour union in the 1980s and 90s. The organisation of teachers was much feared by the government, which wanted to keep them working a punishing regime of testing and extra test preparation, making schools a grim experience for both teachers and taught. Suicide is the second most common cause of death among South Korean teenagers, with the pressure to succeed in tests and fulfill college entrance criteria seen as one of the main causes.

The KTU was founded on the principles of promoting social justice and democratic education. It was this that the government feared. A 1989 statement from the government said: "The underlying intention of the KTU teachers is . . . the overthrowing the system of society through biassed conscientisation of education." In fact the KTU has made a concerted effort to change test-driven education to one which is based on Freirian principles of critical thinking. With a right wing, neo-liberal and oppressive government this is difficult, but one method the union has used has been to introduce so-called Gongdong lessons, where, at a certain time and on a certain day, all KTU teachers engage in teaching lessons which would help their students to understand the power structures of the world in which they live. By leading such lessons all at the same time, the teachers were able to avoid the draconian penalties handed down by the state via school managements on teachers, who stepped out of the straitjacket of the heavily tested and centralised curriculum.

This is not the first time the leadership of the KTU has resorted to hunger strikes to promote its struggle for democratic and critical education. In 2009, its leader went on hunger strike for several weeks to protest the sacking of teachers who had refused to administer the tests.

The website labourstart has initiated a campaign, backed by Education International, against the illegalisation of the Korean teachers union: http://www.labourstartcampaigns.net/show_campaign.cgi?c=1995