Hyundai in Korea
‘Precarious’ autoworkers end heroic sit-down
Published Dec 16, 2010 8:16 PM
In south Korea, according to the International Metalworkers Federation,
“Union repression is among the worst in the world.”
Nonetheless, on the morning of Nov. 15 a group of temporary workers —
referred to as “precarious workers” — began an occupation of
a Hyundai seat assembly plant in Ulsan. They demanded permanent employee status
with Hyundai after being dismissed when the subcontractor they worked for went
out of business. The new subcontractor stipulated that they would only be
rehired if they resigned from the Korean Metal Workers Union.
Within an hour the 40 courageous workers were dragged from the plant, beaten by
company thugs and arrested. Later that evening, 1,000 precarious workers
— all KMWU members — occupied the nearby car assembly plant,
completely stopping production of the Hyundai Accent. Two other assembly plants
were occupied for short periods, after which workers concentrated their forces
on the Accent plant.
Hyundai’s refusal to hire the precarious workers was illegal. In July the
Korean Supreme Court ruled that after two years of contract employment a worker
must become a permanent employee of the contracting company. This ruling was
upheld Nov. 15, the day workers were fired with no advance notice.
Yet while the workers were fighting to uphold the legal right to their jobs,
the strike was deemed illegal and leaders threatened with arrest. Hyundai Kia
Automotive Group — Korea’s third largest company and the fourth
largest car company in the world — filed criminal charges against 78
strikers and “compensation claims” for $14 million against 419.
The workers refused to be intimidated. Their heroic sit-down drew worldwide
attention, with the federation calling on member unions around the world to
send solidarity messages.
Solidarity from U.S. autoworkers
On Dec. 6 the United Auto Workers held a rally outside the Hyundai America
Technical Center in Michigan. There UAW International President Bob King
stated, “We have an unbelievable disparity between the very wealthiest in
society and the working and poor class in society. The only way we are going to
win justice for American workers, for Korean workers, for Chinese, Japanese,
Mexican and Bangladeshi workers and workers everywhere is through global
The rally of 150 drew supporters from other unions, including the Teachers and
Food and Commercial Workers. Eun Park, a striking violinist with the Detroit
Symphony Orchestra, read a statement in Korean from orchestra members, which
was translated into English by another striker. “We have been on strike
for more than nine weeks against huge pay cuts and other demands,” said
Park. “So we are happy to lend our voice to those who are calling for
fairness for the Hyundai workers.”
The UAW rally might have been even stronger — by attracting more UAW rank
and file — if King’s anticorporate stance was more consistent.
While decrying the exploitation of precarious workers in other countries, the
UAW has allowed Ford, General Motors and Chrysler to hire temporary and
part-time workers in U.S. plants who, even after becoming permanent and
full-time, make half the hourly rate of higher-seniority workers.
King also supported the NAFTA-style “free trade” pact between the
U.S. and south Korea. Contradictions aside, the UAW rally drew worldwide
attention and let the Hyundai sit-downers know they were not alone.
The strike had been completely successful in halting production of the Accent,
costing the company 45,000 vehicles and $238 million. Precarious workers at
Hyundai plants in Asan and Jeonju also joined the strike.
Meanwhile, Hyundai bosses were stymied by their inability to circumvent the
occupation and restart Accent production manually. On Dec. 8 the KMWU voted to
call a nationwide strike of all Hyundai plants if the temporary workers were
not made permanent.
On Dec. 9, after Hyundai agreed to negotiate with the KMWU about the
workers’ status, the workers ended their 24-day occupation.
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