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Ssangyong puts nose to the grindstone

First car rolls off the production line after a 77-day strike  PLAY AUDIO

Aug 14,2009
Park Young-tae, a court-appointed manager for Ssangyong Motor Company, presses his lips to the first completed Chairman W at the company’s factory in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi yesterday. The day marked the end of an 84-day shutdown caused by a labor union strike at Ssangyong that endangered the company’s survival. [NEWSIS]
PYEONGTAEK - The sky was blue and the weather mild outside the Ssangyong Motor plant in Pyeongtaek yesterday.

But inside, things were different.

The place was abuzz with noise from clanking metal as sparks flew and the odor of oil filled the air.

Finally, after a 77-day strike, automotive production lines were in full swing.

Even as the temperatures rose and sweat streaked down their foreheads, workers wore broad smiles.

And when the first new vehicle rolled off the line, Ssangyong employees broke into applause.

The luxury sedan called the Chairman W, which Queen Elizabeth II rode in when she visited Korea in 1999, was the first car out of the workshop.

Ssangyong Motor said it planned to produce 74 more units, including 46 SUVs, by the end of the day.

The automaker seeks to produce 2,600 units this month, or some 200 to 300 everyday.

Including vehicles produced earlier in the year, the company hopes to manufacture between 310,000 to 330,000 units this year.

“If we have to, we will work every minute to fulfill the target,” said Cha Ki-woong of the company’s public affairs department.

The production of the first Chairman comes less than a week after the strike ended.

“For 77 days it felt like walking on thin ice,” said Huh Nam-ryeol, 41. Huh has worked at the plant for the past 16 years.

“Because of the strike, I learned how wonderful and exciting it is to work with other people,” he added. “It would be a lie if I didn’t feel anger toward the workers who walked out. But now that it’s all ended, we’re trying to mend fences.”

Kim Jae-jin, 40, said he accepts the two months he went without a paycheck. Kim, a 15-year company veteran, is a father of two sons and the only breadwinner in the family.

“Even though I may not get my paycheck immediately, I’m working with high hopes that our company will soon get back on its feet,” Kim said. “Though I’m the only one in my family who is working, our financial situation is not at such a critical point that every family member has to go out and find a job. We still get by and I’m putting all my hopes in the production of the C200.”

The C200 is a compact sports utility vehicle that Ssangyong Motor unveiled during the Seoul Motor Show held last April.

The company has been crossing its fingers since then that the compact SUV will give it the sales boost it needs.

“The determination of the employees is very strong,” said Lee Yoo-il, one of the court-appointed managers of Ssangyong Motor.

“We will show our customers our determination not through words, but through quality,” he added.

Even the wives of the workers were excited that the plant was up and running.

“I’m overwhelmed,” said Lee Soon-yeol, head of a group called “Wives who Love Ssangyong Motor.”

Lee was cited by the company for her efforts to end the strike.

The group, which consists of 300 wives whose husbands work at Ssangyong, was organized on July 1. Lee is married to Hwang Joo-won, who has worked for the Korean automaker since 1988.

“We helped out by cleaning up the mess left behind by the illegal occupation,” Lee said.

“We worked day and night, even in the pouring rain. It looked as if a war had swept through the factories.”

She said from this day on, Ssangyong Motor employees and their wives will start anew. “The wives will lead in aggressively promoting Ssangyong Motor across the country,” Lee said.

However, she said her heart goes out to the families whose husbands are out of work.

“We were once family and [the layoffs are] not what we wanted,” she said. “But we had no other choice in saving the company.”

Despite the uplifting mood, scars from the recent confrontation were still evident in every corner. Windows were still shattered and burned container boxes were piled up.

There was barbwire at the entrance of the plant. On the walls were stenciled the words “Murderers,” and “Fight!”

The company also still faces big challenges, such as finding an investor for the development of the C200.

“We are opening all options in finding a new investor ... without excluding anyone foreign or domestic,” said Lee Yoo-il, one of the court-appointed managers of Ssangyong Motor. “We will thoroughly review the investors before making a decision.” The company declined to elaborate if there were any potential buyers.

Managers were cautious over the chance of foreign investment since Ssangyong’s last foreign marriage - to a Chinese automaker - ended up on the rocks.

In 2004, Chinese carmaker Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. bought 51 percent of the automaker. Although Shanghai Automotive is still the majority shareholder, it lost management control after Ssangyong filed for court receivership in January. The two parted company after the Chinese automaker stepped away from a previously promised investment in Ssangyong.

Park Young-tae, the other court appointed manager, said that Ssangyong will seek every possible way build the C200, including selling off assets such as real estate.

Despite this, Park said production of the C200 would be unlikely this year. The vehicle was previously scheduled for release next month.


By Lee Ho-jeong [ojlee82@joongang.co.kr]





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