Stirring up trouble
A provisional agreement on wages and other issues between the labor and management of Hyundai Heavy Industries failed to get approval from members of the union. In a vote on Wednesday at 19 polling stations across the nation, 66 percent of the 18,000 union members rejected the agreement that had been hammered out in more than 70 rounds of negotiations between representatives of the labor and management over the last seven months. The union°Øs refusal of the hard-wrought deal is not good for either side. Given the enormous impact of the world°Ø largest shipbuilding company on our domestic industries, the veto threw a wet blanket over the labor reforms the government and industrial sectors have kickstarted.
Unionized workers opposed the deal because it fell short of their expectations in terms of a wage increase. They chucked it away because the arrangement promised a mere 2 percent increase despite their demand for a 6.5 percent wage increase this year. When the company goes into the black in a boom time, it surely must raise their wages. But this is not a boom time. Hyundai reported a nearly 3 trillion won ($2.75 billion) loss last year, the largest ever since its foundation in 1972.
A long slump in the world°Øs shipbuilding industry and fierce competition from China and Japan makes Hyundai°Øs future even more muddy than ever. It is regrettable that the union members turned the bargain between representatives of their union and management into a scrap of waste paper amid an unprecedented crisis.
Hyundai Heavy Industries has a proud history of agreement between labor and management, as clearly seen in operations that avoided strikes for 19 years in a row. But the union built pressure on the management for more pay last year by ignoring its roughly two decades-long uninterrupted record of concord. And the result of an unprecedented strike was the agreement between labor and management. We expected the union to successfully wrap up the long negotiations with management. But it dashed cold water on our hopes and deviated from its longstanding spirit of cooperation and co-prosperity at the last minute.
A tripartite committee of labor, management and government aimed at reforming our outmoded labor market kicked off Friday. The Korean economy can hardly find a breakthrough in a tough economic situation like this without improving its wage systems and working conditions. The subject - and object - of labor reforms is the labor unions of big companies. The union of Hyundai must acknowledge the hardships facing Korea°Øs shipbuilding sector and overall economy rather than envying a small number of companies with better working conditions than itself. We hope the union demonstrates some of its old wisdom before it°Øs too late for all involved.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 10, Page 30