Referring to a strike by unionized workers of subcontractors of Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering, President Yoon Suk-yeol on Monday said that the illegal situation on the industrial site must come to an end.
The government said in a statement that it will deal with illegal acts strictly according to law and principles and warned that it may sue strikers for criminal punishment and damages. The state-owned Korea Development Bank holds a majority stake in the DSME.
However, such warnings have fallen on deaf ears during labor disputes involving the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions in recent years.
About 120 union members of subcontractors who joined the Korean Metal Workers’ Union affiliated with the confederation are on a strike demanding a pay rise of 30 percent. Some of them have occupied the shipyard’s main dock for 50 days.
DSME estimates their illegal occupation incurred about 600 billion won ($458 million) in accumulated sales loss. More than 10 domestic partners of the nation’s third largest shipbuilder went out of business, and seven more are scheduled to shut down, in the aftermath of the strike.
Last Saturday the court ordered the strikers to end their occupation, saying that they went beyond the bounds of a legitimate strike. It also ruled that the strikers should pay 3 million won a day to DSME if it keeps occupying the shipyard.
The company, unable to bear losses piling up due to the sit-in, applied for an injunction against the occupation, and the court ruled in this way. This is a court decision that no one would expect in the days of the Moon Jae-in administration.
But the enforcement levy is too small compared with losses the company has suffered due to the illegal occupation.
The Korean Metal Workers’ Union, to which the dock occupiers belong, is said to have an annual budget of tens of billions of won. Three million won a day in fines for refusing to comply with the court order is not so big as to make them end the illegal occupation.
The striking union members are said to have demanded DSME and subcontractors drop civil and criminal suits for their illegal strike. They asked companies not to hold them legally responsible for illegal acts if they want to put an end to their illegal occupation.
It was customary for companies, particularly large companies, to withdraw suits against strikers in consideration of long-term labor relations, if their losses were not so large. But this time the costs are tremendous.
What matters is to adhere to principle, regardless of the amount of damages. If DSME accepts the demand and drops suits for damages despite significant losses, its management will likely be sued by shareholders for breach of trust.
Dispersing an illegal assembly forcibly after attempts at negotiation and persuasion fail may be a means to establish the rule of law, but suing for damages and criminal punishment is essential in discouraging illegal strikes or occupation.
The confederation, the more militant of the nation’s two major labor groups, became a political force a long time ago. It turned into an interest group that walks all over business proprietors and non-union colleagues and uses violence against them like a pack of gangsters. This was possible as the court looked at their illegal and violent behavior with sympathy.
The court released the leader of the confederation on probation, even though he held a large rally downtown in violation of social distancing rules on COVID-19 pandemic.
Early this month, the court allowed the union group to hold a rally and march involving tens of thousands of its members. The court cited freedom of assembly but paid little attention to inconveniences and losses that pedestrians would suffer.
No matter how strongly the government asserts the legality of labor disputes and the rule of law, if a suit for damages is dropped as a negotiation condition or if legal punishment turns out to be a slap on the wrist, violent, illegal acts by the militant labor group will only be repeated.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org