The Real Auto Strike Behind Netflix Hit Squid Game Runaway

Spoiler alert: This article contains major spoilers for the hit series, including the latest episodes. – Editors.

The compelling Netflix TV series Squid game– set in modern South Korea – is fast becoming the most-watched series in Netflix history. Just a month after its launch, it is expected to soon reach 100 million views in homes around the world.

The series depicts a violent survival game in which desperate and impoverished contestants battle each other to the death to win a huge glass pig filled with 46.5 billion won (nearly $ 40 million). While even casual viewers can quickly grasp the show’s concern about the inequalities between rich and poor, much of its global audience may miss how Squid game comments on Korea’s trade union history and the role of worker solidarity in maintaining humanity from the oppressed.


Squid gameThe critique of growing social and economic inequality in Korea is forcefully presented in the second episode (simply titled “Hell”), which presents the grim daily lives of its impoverished protagonists. Everyone who joins Mortal Squid Games is poor and insane, including the main character, fired auto union worker Seong Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae), as well as a failed stockbroker, a North Korean defector, a small gangster, a lonely elderly man and a migrant Pakistani factory worker.

Despite the fact that the Korean economy has become the 10th richest in the world, these struggling Koreans represent the growing socio-economic divide in a society where personal debt has reached a staggering 104% of national gross domestic product this year. , which is 35% more than in 2007.

On the flip side, the decadence and venality of the super-rich is powerfully presented in the series’ final episodes, where lavishly costumed mega-rich gamers bet on the death-struggles of the poor while lounging with their feet propped up. naked human servants.


One of the more subtle nods to the Korean labor movement appears in Episode 5 (“A Fair World”), in a cryptic scene where the main protagonist sees his competitors turn against each other in a violent melee. This traumatic event plunges him into a trance as he recalls similar scenes of deadly violence from his life as a car worker.

The casual viewer is probably unaware that these trance visions describe a real event in Korean history: the 2009 strike at SsangYong Motors. This struggle ended in a violent defeat when hundreds of rampaging police charged the factory and brutally beat the strikers.

As a forward for SsangYong, Seong saw his colleague beaten to death by the police. These events ultimately led him to lose his job and future prospects and to divorce, losing custody of his daughter.

Squid game imagine how such brutal events could lead desperate workers to stake their lives on a chance for economic redemption. This fantastic vision of the struggles against the suicide of miserable workers is in fact grounded in reality.

Outbreak of suicides

SsangYong’s actual 77-day strike took place when the company unexpectedly laid off 43 percent of its entire workforce (2,646 workers) to facilitate a transfer of its for-profit assets to global investors; the company was bought by a Chinese company, Shanghai Motors, then bought by an Indian company, Mahindra & Mahindra.

After the strike was violently suppressed, the strikers were excluded from employment in other large Korean companies. In addition, SsangYong and the local police used civilian courts to prosecute them for harming the company. Union members were ordered to pay hefty fines for “economic damage” of around $ 9 million, an amount these workers did not have and would never see in their lives. In addition, the deferred interest on these fines was to increase by 620,000 won per day, soon exceeding 1.5 times the principal owed.

To pay these astronomical fines for their union activity, workers’ wages and property (including even their homes) were sometimes seized by the courts. They were delivered to SsangYong Motor Company or the police under Korea’s harsh anti-union “economic damage” compensation laws.

Thirteen SsangYong workers and their family members died by suicide as a result of this anti-union oppression between 2009 and 2011. The latest statement from a worker read: “My wages have been drastically reduced and it is painful to feed my children. with ramen (instant noodles) because I can’t afford rice. Another worker said to his wife, “I only leave you in debt until the last moment. I’m sorry. ”Between 2009 and 2018, another 30 workers from SsangYong committed suicide for similar reasons.


But the series also presents possibilities for redemption through solidarity among the poor. Many competitors in the Squid game the series are only there to save themselves (like the greedy gangster and the amoral stockbroker); others turn to prayer, which does not save them. But in the end, the characters who show solidarity with the suffering of others and who sacrifice themselves to save others are the only ones who worthily transcend the horrible game; we even survive.

All along Squid game, trade unionist Gi-hun shows compassion to the other participants, sacrificing his own chances of survival to stand alongside candidates like a sick old man and a fatally injured young woman. Her strong moral compassion is motivated by what the final episode presents as her “trust in humanity,” a sense of solidarity that is at the very basis of what it means to believe in union and what it can accomplish. .

Squid gameThe hero of, the dismissed union activist, represents the triumph of humanity and solidarity, even in the face of the vagaries of capitalism. Individuals may be scattered, fragile and desperate for their own survival, but human beings are nonetheless bound by a larger moral responsibility to care for one another. This principle of animation of the labor movement is artistically depicted in Squid gameis a living imaginarium. Ultimately, the struggling Gi-hun is broken but still standing – a decent trade unionist.

Minsun Ji is the founder of a popular education consultancy, Labor Coop Connections. She was a union organizer, founder of a workers’ center (El Centro Humanitario) in Denver, and director of a graduate program, the Center for New Directions in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Colorado at Denver.

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