The “Hope Bus” demonstrations near a shipyard of the Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction in Busan last weekend ended without serious disturbances. But turmoil can resume any time as a coalition of leftist groups has chosen the labor trouble at the midsized shipbuilding company as a rallying point for a general offensive against the conservative government ahead of elections next year.
About 10,000 demonstrators gathered in the port city by Saturday in chartered buses from Seoul for the third round protest actions since mid-June caused by a major layoff plan. But they kept a distance from the shipyard compound and refrained from violent actions as they promised to Busan authorities, averting clashes with police and residents unlike in previous demonstrations.
From atop a 40-meter-high crane, a labor activist who has staged a lone sit-in there since January made a telephone address to the Hope Bus demonstrators below Saturday night. She exhorted “hawkers, evictees, non-regular workers, fired workers, physically handicapped people, suppressed women, students struggling under heavy tuitions” to get off the “bus of despair running through corruption, injustice and destructions” and take the “Bus of Hope.”
The protesters on the ground, including members of leftist civic groups, opposition politicians, students and unionists, applauded when she said, through loud speakers, “People obsessed with money cannot beat those who are not endeared with their life. Please think of what made me climb up here and remain here for the past 206 days.”
HHIC owner-CEO Cho Nam-ho contributed much to the complex developments at the shipyard with his snubbing of negotiations with the union since the company decided on a 400-man layoff early this year to concentrate resources on its Subic Bay shipyard in the Philippines. He stayed much of the time overseas and even failed to attend a National Assembly hearing on his company situation to which he was summoned as a witness.
Opposition parties demanded a second hearing on the HHIC and the majority Grand National Party agreed to it on the condition that the woman protester comes down from the shipyard crane. Aware of the limits in what they can do about the Hanjin problem, however, the parties are asking the presidential office to intervene, departing from its policy of non-interference in corporate labor troubles.
The political slogans on the placards that wrap the Hope Buses converging in Busan prove that the Hanjin dispute, which involves some 100 workers who refuse to accept the company offer of some extra benefits for retirement, is no longer a corporate problem. It is a strategically chosen battle zone for the leftist coalition to seize the political and social control of the nation and finally to wrest power from the conservatives.
Their immediate goal is to create nationwide turmoil of the scale of the anti-U.S. beef import protests in 2008 to deal a decisive blow to the administration and its party. The protester on the crane and her supporters on the ground are calling on small-time merchants, peasants, poor students and all sorts of underprivileged people to join them in fighting against the conservative government. Their next target is a naval base construction site on Jeju Island, where public opinion is sharply divided.
Over the past three and a half years since the Lee administration virtually capitulated to the mad cow protesters in 2008, President Lee has never really showed his muscle in governance. His initial business-friendly posture to facilitate quick recovery from the global economic crisis gradually gave way to “grassroots-friendly” policies to counter the populism-oriented offensives of the opposition forces. Lee won genuine friendship neither from the rich nor from the poor through this awkward transition.
The administration may have little to do regarding the Hanjin dispute itself. But it offers an opportunity for the Lee administration to prove what it can do for the final third of its mandate. The authorities should make their utmost efforts to separate outside elements from the labor dispute and ensure a peaceful protest that does not cause inconvenience to residents or disrupt shipyard operations. Any illegal activities on the part of Hope Bus protesters, unionists and management should be brought to justice without an exception.