Korean Shipyards Quiet - For Now. LABOR UNREST. Seoul's tougher anti-strike tactics worked in Ulsan, but the mood there remains tense.

THE chanted cadences of paramilitary riot police, their black boots striking the pavement in unison, echoed through the vast grounds of the Hyundai shipyards here. Troops stood in stiff ranks by the gates, body-length shields held in front, tear-gas launchers by their sides. Workers quietly passed by on their way to the morning shift. In the hillside above the yards, looking down on the huge cranes, the workers' children played, and wives talked in hushed tones outside the doorways of the company apartments. They were never out of sight of the riot police, who stood in clusters on every corner.

Special police units prowled the streets and alleys of the workers' quarters. Young men were stopped at random, their papers checked. Police searched for the scores of union leaders who had gone underground.

The government and Hyundai officials are confident that the heavy hand of the police will usher in peace. The workers are returning to work - some with relief, others with sullen resentment. But there is every reason to believe that this is only an uneasy calm before another storm.

The decision to send troops into this port city at the end of March to break a bitter four-month-old strike was the centerpiece of a new South Korean government strategy of forceful intervention.

After a long period of taking a hands-off approach to labor strife, ``we did that out of necessity,'' Minister for Legislation Hyun Hong Cho told the Monitor. The strike, he says, was a ``proxy war between government and radical forces.''

The government sees the Ulsan strike as a test case for a nationwide confrontation with an emergent coalition of ``democratic unions'' loosely allied with antigovernment activists. Arrests this week across the country were aimed at blocking a planned May 1 general strike by the militant group.

Business circles saw the Ulsan conflict as the crucial battleground against a wave of strikes across the country as unions engage in annual spring contract negotiations. Korean workers are demanding higher wages and other concessions, which businessmen fear will trigger a serious downturn in the economy.

The outcome at Ulsan ``will affect management-labor relations in the future ... all over Korea,'' predicted Shim Young Soo, a Senior vice-president of Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI), the shipyard firm.

But the government's intervention strategy worries many residents in Ulsan. Even though Song Suk Ye's husband has gone back to work, ``He's not working.''

She blamed both the company and the militants in the union for the long strike. But ``as a member of the Hyundai family,'' she explained as her young son stood by her side, ``it is something to be worked out within the family. I don't understand why the government had to intervene and bring these police into my home.''

The police are an alien presence here, in what some locals call the ``Republic of Hyundai.'' From the shipyards of Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) to the sprawling plants of Hyundai Motors, life revolves around the giant Hyundai conglomerate.

In this port city of 650,000 on South Korea's east coast, the workers at 11 Hyundai group companies and their families make up one of every three persons. Starting in the summer of 1987, when virtually all the Hyundai workers walked out and marched en masse into the city, this has been the most crucial battleground for Korean unionism. HERE, Korean workers have exercised newly won democratic freedoms to form trade unions and demand a bigger piece of the economic pie. And they have confronted Korea's largest corporate giant, one unwilling to share power with its workers.

Since that summer, the mood at the shipyards, where confrontation was most intense, had never brightened. The strike which began last December was only the latest battle.

For the Hyundai workers, the main villain is Chung Ju-Yong, the crusty founder of the group, well-known for his violent opposition to unions and famous for urging on his workers by literally kicking them in the rear.

The autocratic Mr. Chung earned some understanding from Hyundai auto worker Chong Sok An who, after his own day's work was finished, joined his brothers at the shipyards to demonstrate.

``When Chung worked to build this company, he had to starve and use his own hands,'' the young worker said. ``But times have changed. And he hasn't changed his thinking.''

Mr. Chong imagined the founder thinking, ``The workers don't know what I did to build this company - how dare they [strike]?'' ``But,'' the auto worker said, ``the workers have made a lot of sacrifices to help him build this company. He has to share his wealth with us.''

HHI Vice-President Shim says the problem isn't between management and workers; it is ``an inter-union conflict'' between a minority of militants and a moderate majority. ``The hard-liners are threatening and intimidating workers,'' and are backed by radical political elements from outside, Mr. Shim charges. The company supported former union leader Soh Tae Su, who refused to back the strike and went into hiding from the militant leaders.

In a dormitory for single workers, where the company had cut off electricity and water to force the strikers out, three welders told a different story. The union started talks with the company with four simple demands, including an extra month's bonus and reduction to a half day of work on Saturday. Soh was ousted when he tried to negotiate behind the union's back. The workers described Soh as a ``120 percent company man.''

Under the leadership of the deputy union chairman, a militant, the workers struck and the company refused to negotiate. As the strike continued, violence escalated. In January, goons beat up union leaders. The company claimed an overzealous manager had hired the men. Again, in February, pro-company men attacked union demonstrators.

Militant strikers occupied part of the shipyards, arming themselves with firebombs and other homemade weapons. Dissident political groups around Korea rallied to the side of the workers. But, as the situation wore on, many workers felt caught between two extremes. ``I disagree with the use of violence'' by the union, Ha Sang Doo, a 34-year-old Hyundai worker said. ``But if the company had shown any sincerity in dealing with the workers, things wouldn't have gotten out of hand like this.''

Meanwhile, in Seoul, government officials worried publicly about the danger of a left-wing alliance of workers and dissidents. On March 30, a massive intervention by about 14,000 riot police ousted the striking workers. For days afterward, violent clashes with police continued. Radical students tried to join the workers.

But the government was also embarrassed by Hyundai head Chung's refusal to even travel to Ulsan, much less talk to the union. Senior officials urged him to do something.

The owner of the largest department store in Ulsan, Lee Suk Ho, also the head of the city's Chamber of Commerce, tried to mediate. The government intervention was ``inevitable,'' he said. But ``it would have been much better if Chung had shown a more positive attitude, such as coming down here to see, and made efforts to negotiate.''

A new union election is scheduled for April 24. The company says it will talk with new union leaders. But many of the current leaders cannot attend the meeting for fear of arrest.

For Chon Kyong Ok, the pregnant wife of a shipyard worker, the strike was a hardship. She decried the politicization of the strike, the efforts of striking workers to prevent those who wanted to go to work, the dissidents' efforts to exploit the issue. Secretly, she said, she hoped the government would do something. ``But after they did that, I was distressed.... It shows the government is still siding with the big companies.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Korean Shipyards Quiet - For Now. LABOR UNREST. Seoul's tougher anti-strike tactics worked in Ulsan, but the mood there remains tense.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today