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[Editorial] Suicidal walkout

Shipbuilding unions should withdraw strike plans

July 15, 2016 - 17:32 By 이윤주
It is not unusual for large Korean unions to down tools at the wrong time and for the wrong cause. But the news that unions of major shipbuilders and the top automaker are moving to strike is truly disappointing.

The unions of eight major shipbuilding firms held a joint news conference at the National Assembly on Wednesday, vowing to launch a general strike on July 20 in protest against restructuring plans.

Some of the unions had already been taking collective action. Workers of Samsung Heavy Industries, which faces heavy restructuring, including layoffs and pay cuts, staged a sit-in protest at the firm’s head office in Seoul on Wednesday. Last week, the Samsung workers staged a four-hour strike at the firm’s shipyard on Geojedo Island.

One more ominous development is the move of the unions of Hyundai Motor and Hyundai Heavy Industries to hold a joint strike for the first time in 23 years. The two big unions are apparently seeking to maximize the impact of their stoppage. 

The automaker’s union demands a 7.2 percent increase in basic salary plus a bonus -- it wants to have at least 30 percent of the firm’s net profit. This is too much, even considering Hyundai Motor and its affiliate Kia Motors are doing relatively well amid an economic slump.

But it is a totally different story with Hyundai Heavy, which could not stay afloat without becoming leaner and more productive. Nonetheless, its union opposes layoffs and other restructuring plans, and instead demands pay increases and bonuses.

That they also demanded that at least 100 union members with “meritorious performance” be provided overseas trips in the name of training or education leaves us speechless. This hardly can be something sought by the union of a company which had lost about 5 trillion won over the past two years.

The nation’s top three shipyards -- Hyundai, Samsung and Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering -- are bearing the brunt of the severe storm buffeting the industry. They are soaking up astronomical amounts of bailout money and inflicting a tremendous burden on the national economy.
Shipbuilding unions argue that they oppose the restricting plans because they demand workers’ sacrifice only. That would be wrong, but it wouldn’t be right either if workers were not willing to share the pain, only pointing fingers instead.

On Geojedo Island, at least three workers -- employees of suppliers to Samsung and Daewoo shipyards there -- killed themselves, with the motives for their tragic decision probably linked to the economic hardship sweeping across the once-prosperous town. It is apparent what each player -- the government, shareholders, executives, creditors and workers -- has to do prevent more such tragedies.