Korea's new labor leaders: militant, but pragmatic
Ulsan, South Korea — The sprawling Hyundai Motor Company factory, where hundredsof thousands of gleaming Excels are made for export, is the symbol of Korea's emergent industrial might. But for the workers who get paid 50 cents of a new, still evolving relationship between Korean workers and their bosses.
The company owners who have forged South Korea's dramatic economic laborers of Hyundai Motor had no union. Today the company must share power with the leaders of a newly formed union which is enjoying the fruit of a rd democracy. Protests earlier this year that led to government promises of new elections inspired workers to step up their own demands. And the prospdai strike earlier this week.
On Monday, an unyielding Hyundai management, along with seven other Ulsan-based Hyundai Group companies, locked out or better working conditions were met with disdain by the founder of Hyundai, Chung Ju Yong.
On Tuesday, after battles the day before with riot police, some 40,000 to 50,000 workers marched in the streets of Ulsan, a city where 1 out of 6 residents wrks for Hyundai or its affiliates. That night the deputy minister of labor, who flew in from Seoul, announced the government's guarantee that Hyundai would negotiate in good faith with the unions.
The next da still flush with victory, a leader of theauto union told this reporter proudly, ``The united power of the workers moved the government.''
The new union leaders, who have united in a council of Hyundai conglomerate unions, represent the vanguard of a new Korean labor movement. Almost withoutexception they are young, in their 20s or 30s. They are militant but pragmatic, eschewing political ideology for the pursuit of economic gains.
Labor demands reflect Korea's economic growth, analysts say. They are the result of rising expectations, o previously unavailable consumer goods like televisions and cars now within the reach of industrial workers. While Korean workers have gained, ``we ought to have benefited more,'' an auto union leader says. ``For ourselves, we do not feel the growth of ealth.''
The new movement has almost no ties to the existing Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), which is viewed by most workers as a powerle power and credibility during the rule of President Chun Doo Hwan, who took power in 1980 after the assassination of dictator Park Chung Hee. In the brief democratic opening between the two regimes, there was a wave of labor protest. When Mr. Chun tookpower, the union movement was crushed.
Under the labor law decreed in December 1980, industrial unions and organizing labor were effectively bannedn Seoul, the regime tried to impose Japanese-style company unions where workers would cooperate with management.
``It never worked,'' says Mr. Kamberis, ``because labor was not ready and entrepreneurs didn't want labor involved in management.'' Unlik Japan, Korean management has a very authoritarian relationship to its employees.
After 1980, in practice, union organizing of any kind was almost impossible. ``It was forbidden to have any meetings for unions,'' says the Hyundai union leader. ``The secret police would come and take us away....''
Starting a couple of years ago new stirrings among labor, led by the new generation, began to take place. All this occurred in parallel with the opening up of the political process as the opposition partes stepped up their campaign for democratization.
The key turning point, company and labor officials agree, was the political uprising that led to the June 29 declaration by ruling party leader Roh Tae Woo of democratic reforms. Across the country duing the past month, more than 1,000 strikes have broken out.
The management moved to preempt the new mood by sponsoring the formation of pro-manage it presented itself o workers the next day, a spontaneous revolt broke out and thousands of workers went on wildcat strike, shutting down the plant and demonstrating in fadership.
The events of this week were thus a dramatic high point of a gathering storm. Because of Hyundai's fierce anti-unionism and its status as the nation's largest conglomerate, says Kamberis, ``this is going to have a ripple effect.''
The FKTU, which is experiencing a transformation from within by younger unionists, is sponsoring a revision of the labor laws to allow freedom to organize any type of union. Even a new national federation could emere. It is possible that the Hyundai unions could be the basis for such an association, observers believe.
What is still to be shaped is how management and labor will deal with each other from now on. While the company has accepted their presence, it ws under government pressure and duress. What has happened, says a Hyundai executive, ``is OK, but it does not seem to be a long-term solution. [It is] young people gathering together, shouting together - it may become acceptable to break the law.''