Strikes by umbrella labor groups and unions of big conglomerates in Korea do not usually receive wide support from the general public. This is because the massive work stoppages are often illegal, politically motivated or aimed at protecting vested interests.
The union of Hyundai Motor Group is one of those groups whose walkouts usually get little public support. The reasons for this include the fact that the Hyundai workers already get some of the fattest paychecks in the country, even though their productivity is much lower than that of their colleagues in overseas Hyundai plants.
Concerns about the economic damage that would come from crippling the nation’s top automaker, which is also a leading exporter, also lead to public disapproval.
Nevertheless, its hard-line union has called a strike in all but four of the past 27 years. This year, it has again voted to strike, and at least a partial walkout could hit the automaker as early as Friday.
Contentious issues in the labor-management negotiations that have been going on for about 2 1/2 months include the scope of “ordinary wages,” an annual pay raise, the extension of the company retirement age and bonuses.
The thorniest of these issues is the counting of regular bonuses as part of ordinary wages, which has become a major issue between the nation’s labor and management in the wake of a court ruling that said all fixed bonuses should be included in the base wages.
Hyundai management opposes the union demand because its bonuses are, unlike those at other automakers like GM Korea Co. and Ssangyong Motor Co., not given regularly or to all employees.
Counting bonuses in the ordinary wages will increase overtime pay, allowances and severance payments, which Hyundai officials say will impose an immense financial burden on the automaker.
Hyundai union chief Lee Kyung-hoon and leaders of the umbrella group ― the metal workers’ union ― vowed Wednesday to go on strike unless the automaker accepts its demands, saying that expansion of the scope of the ordinary wages is a matter that concerns “all workers” in the country.
Now that the court has made a ruling on ordinary wages, labor and management at all workplaces in the nation including Hyundai have to revise their wage schemes. But any such changes should be made through negotiations, and in any case, Hyundai hardly can afford a strike.
The company’s operating profits in the second quarter slipped 13.5 percent from the same period last year. It is also rapidly losing its share of the domestic market to imports.
And now more than half of the automaker’s output comes from overseas plants, where workers have superior productivity and skills than that of workers here.
One more big concern is that a strike by the Hyundai union will pour cold water on the nation’s efforts to recover from the Sewol ferry disaster and restore the economy.