Occupation of Korean Hyundai Plant Comes to a Close

Kari Lydersen December 10, 2010

The Hyundai strike in Ulsan, Korea underscored the tensions between contract and direct-hire workers. Nevertheless, an occupation cost the company $283 million.

A once-hum­ming Hyundai fac­to­ry in Ulsan, Korea has become a cold win­tery island” where peo­ple are faint­ing from mal­nu­tri­tion as work­ers are on their fourth week of a sit-down strike by so-called irreg­u­lar” tem­po­rary sub­con­tract work­ers who are demand­ing per­ma­nent positions.

There have been three-way meet­ings between the com­pa­ny, the union of irreg­u­lar work­ers and the union rep­re­sent­ing full-time work­ers, though the Korea Times report­ed the full-time work­ers’ union has been reluc­tant” to sup­port the temps’ strug­gle. On Wednes­day the 45,000-strong union vot­ed whether to sup­port the tem­po­rary work­ers. Lat­er, Yon­hap report­ed that all unions involved agreed to enter nego­ti­a­tions with man­age­ment togeth­er and would sus­pend strike action at that time.

Such an agree­ment was orig­i­nal­ly con­sid­ered unlike­ly as the Korea Times noted:

Under­stand­ably, the unions would not want oth­ers to join their ranks since they are not ready to share the pie promised by management.

Since begin­ning their strike Nov. 15, the work­ers have pre­vent­ed the pro­duc­tion of more than 24,000 cars, at a cost of more than $238 mil­lion. Man­age­ment from the Seoul-based com­pa­ny report­ed­ly start­ed some man­u­fac­tur­ing even as the strike was going on, with work­ers dis­rupt­ing the half-strength” production. 

The Korea Her­ald reports:

Hyundai had mod­i­fied the assem­bly line to allow part of the pro­duc­tion process to be car­ried out man­u­al­ly in order to bypass areas under the con­trol of strik­ing work­ers ― the auto­mat­ed stor­age facil­i­ty, and the con­vey­or that con­nects the paint shop to the gen­er­al assem­bly sec­tion of the line…The non-reg­u­lar work­ers had occu­pied three assem­bly lines ear­ly on in the strike but with­drew from oth­er facil­i­ties main­tain­ing con­trol only over the line that pro­duces sub­com­pact cars Accent, Click and Verna.

Recent­ly about 150 mem­bers of the UAW union protest­ed out­side the Hyundai-Kia Amer­i­ca Tech­ni­cal Cen­ter in Michi­gan. A few mem­bers of Detroit’s strik­ing sym­pho­ny orches­tra also joined the protest. UAW pres­i­dent Bob King called the effort an exam­ple of the union’s stepped-up empha­sis on glob­al jus­tice. The move toward employ­ing tem­po­rary, sub­con­tract­ed work­ers to do the jobs full-time, direct-hire work­ers had pre­vi­ous­ly done is of course a trend world­wide in many dif­fer­ent indus­tries, gut­ting the well-pay­ing blue-col­lar union jobs of yore that essen­tial­ly built the mid­dle class in the U.S. and oth­er countries.

King is trav­el­ing to Korea and met with work­ers Dec. 10. He has raised the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the UAW try­ing to orga­nize work­places in oth­er coun­tries, includ­ing Korea. Labor lead­ers world­wide are see­ing the Ulsan occu­pa­tion as an inspir­ing exam­ple of the tac­tics and deter­mi­na­tion need­ed to com­bat increas­ing moves by employ­ers in var­i­ous sec­tors to resort to sub­con­trac­tors and tem­po­rary work­ers with few rights or ben­e­fits, in jobs that once offered sol­id union wages.

As the Korea Times says:

Since the nation’s labor­ers start­ed orga­niz­ing unions en masse in the late 1980s, com­pa­nies have real­ized that they could no longer resort to cheap labor to com­bat the rise of the union­ists. Mak­ing sub­stan­tial con­ces­sions to union­ized reg­u­lar work­ers, they adopt­ed a brand new strat­e­gy of employ­ing in-house sub­con­trac­tors for job open­ings caused by reg­u­lar work­ers leav­ing. It is a kind of win-win solu­tion both for man­age­ment and labor ― the for­mer can take advan­tage of work­ers who they are allowed to fire at any­time by chang­ing the sub­con­trac­tors while the lat­ter secured good salaries and oth­er perks. The only losers were irreg­u­lar work­ers, who typ­i­cal­ly do the same job as reg­u­lar work­ers for much less.

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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