August 29, 2023
SEOUL – Teachers and the government are locking horns over a massive rally on Sept. 4 where some 70,000 teachers plan to participate by taking a day off from school despite the government’s threat of disciplinary action.
Under the slogan “a day to pause public education,” the teachers will rally on Sept. 4 to demand that parliament pass a bill to grant teachers immunity from child abuse claims.
While the second semester has kicked off for many schools, the teachers plan to walk out of schools that Monday by taking the day off or using their sick leave. Under the current legislation, teachers, who are public servants, must take time off or use sick leave to attend a protest, as public school teachers don’t have the right to take collective action or strike.
The rally also seeks to commemorate the death of a 23-year-old elementary school teacher who passed away in Seoul in July. Sept. 4 comes 49 days after the teacher’s passing, and it is a Buddhist belief that a deceased’s spirit leaves the human world 49 days after death.
The Education Ministry on Sunday said teachers participating in the rally by taking sick leave “constitutes an illegal strike.” It warned school principals that they could face serious disciplinary action, including dismissal from their positions and even criminal charges, if they approve of teachers taking the day off for no other reason than being sick, saying that teachers would be abandoning their duties.
The ministry said that commemorating the late teacher’s death could be done in the evening after school or by sending condolences online, adding that it would respond strictly regarding any collective action.
According to a survey conducted by Indischool, an online community for teachers, more than 70,000 education staff, including teachers, headmasters and vice principals, said they would participate in the collective action as of Friday morning. Some 450 schools have decided to close temporarily on Sept. 4, according to reports.
On the same day, Education Minister Lee Ju-ho expressed his concern that teachers taking leave in this way might violate students’ right to learn.
“I agree that we should be sympathetic (with regards to the death of the teacher). … (But a teachers’ rally) could be misunderstood as political action. I do not recommend that (teachers) go on strike,” Lee said in a radio interview with KBS.
Following Lee’s remarks, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union said Monday it would file a complaint against the education minister with the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office or the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials for abusing his authority in threatening disciplinary action against teachers.
Cho Hee-yeon, superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, meanwhile, welcomed the teachers’ decision to go on strike, calling for schools in Seoul to commemorate the late teacher in their own ways.
“The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education has decided to designate September 4 as the ‘Day to Rebuild Public Education.’ I promise I will become an umbrella protecting teachers from the rain,” Cho said in a statement on Monday, adding that his office remains committed to shielding teachers.
Teachers taking collective action against the government have been a source of controversy for decades, as they fought against authoritarian regimes in the 1980s and early ’90s. However, these actions have also sparked concerns for some about their political influence within classrooms.
The progressive Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union was founded in 1989 to protest the military-backed Roh Tae-woo regime and is one of the two largest teachers unions. Around 1,500 teachers who joined the union were dismissed nationwide during that period. They were eventually reinstated four years later when the first civilian government, led by the late President Kim Young-sam, was elected.