KCTU’s miscalculated strikeUlsan in South Gyeongsang was once the industrial hub of Korea, but that reputation has long been diminished. There are few factories being built and those in place are closing down one by one. The petrochemical industry is particularly hard hit, since China finished establishing its own petrochemical manufacturing base and stopped importing Korean products. Cheaper Chinese products are instead making fast inroads into the local market.
Still, there is one construction site in Ulsan that stands out. A joint venture set up by SK Gas and Advanced Global Investment, a unit of Advance Petrochemical of Saudi Arabia, broke ground in May last year to build a propane dehydrogenation, or PDH, factory with capacity to produce 600,000 tons a year. The plant will turn out propylene, which goes into automotive parts, electronics products and textiles, and will use liquefied natural gas (LNG) instead of oil to run the factory. The cheaper LNG pulled out from shale gas fields in the United States will be shipped through the expanded Panama Canal. SK expects its cost-competitive products will boost exports. With initial investment of 1.06 trillion won ($1 billion), the factory is expected to generate production value of 2 trillion won a year. It has already received stable funding from Advanced Global of Saudi Arabia. The city of Ulsan naturally is grateful for the windfall. The construction has created jobs for 1,500 workers. All seemed to be too good to be true until construction was stopped on Wednesday - the union of the construction workers building the plant joined a general strike led the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the umbrella organization. The Ulsan plant union claims its strike is legal because it has gone through a vote and arbitration from the Busan local labor committee.
But the strike is illegal. SK has been targeted from the beginning by the union group. Of over 1,500 workers in the field, just 300 are members to the KCTU. But the umbrella group has blocked nonmember workers as well as members of the larger union group, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, from reporting to work. Physical clashes and violence have also taken place between workers who wish to work and those trying to prevent them. A union is interfering with the right of an individual worker to do his job.
The Ulsan plant union is one of the toughest and most militant in Ulsan. The members, clad in uniform red vests, are positioned and commanded like army soldiers. They dominate plants in Ulsan through their organized command system. Their militant track record dates back to 10 years ago. In 2005, the plant union’s strike lasted for 76 days. Its leader cried, “We are not asking for more money. We cannot have a decent meal in the construction site filled with steel and cement dust. We don’t have a roof over our head even when it rains. What we ask for is to eat our food away from sand and dust.”
Their demand for improved working condition had been just. Since then working conditions in construction sites have improved greatly. Most are equipped with showers and resting rooms. At the SK factory site, there is even an ambulance with a nurse standing by.
The plant union is demanding their paid holiday to be extended to 17 days from the current seven. Such long absence cannot be accepted in construction site that moves on schedule to meet the completion deadline. Skilled workers at plant construction sites receive 200,000 won on average per day. They would earn about 5 million won a month if they work for 25 days. If they work overtime to 9 p.m., they earn 400,000 won, or two day’s worth of pay. Although it is hard labor, the money is not bad.
What the plant union is doing is like cutting open a chicken to get more eggs, taking jobs for local workers through its actions and demands.
Who would invest when building a factory is so difficult in Korea? If strikes go on for a long time and delay construction, other foreign investors would cross Korea off from their investment destination list.
If there is no construction site, there is no work for plant workers. Do they really want to have no work throughout the year just to earn 10 more holidays? Ulsan’s future as well the country’s economy hinges on workers’ good judgment.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 29, Page 34
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Cheong Chul-gun