By Martha Grevatt
Superior Township, Mich.
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.” (imfmetal.org)
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 solidarity.”
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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