Ignoring the writing on the wall

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Ignoring the writing on the wall

The summer of 1987 was sizzling hot. Workers at the Hyundai Heavy Industries dockyard in Ulsan opposed the military dictatorship. They formed a fiery army as they marched over the hill of Namok. Their roars of rage were met by those from the Hyundai Motor industrial site in northern Ulsan and the petrochemical fields in the south. The cries of the workers echoed across the nation and in the end paved the way for democracy after decades of military rule.

Thirty years afterwards, the militant workers who were standard bearers for the democracy movement are some of the highest-paid workers in Korea. But their heyday is over. The boom years have come to an abrupt end. Ship orders have fallen off and the mighty cranes stand idle.

Warning signals have been obvious for years, but both the management and workers of the world’s mightiest shipyards paid little attention. They are now pleading to the government and the people for help.

News of the dockyard workers’s fall from grace must not have reached over the hill of Namok to the eastern and northern fronts. Hyundai Motor workers pay heed to no one except their union bosses. Thousands of cars in Ulsan are waiting for shipment. A similar spectacle can be witnessed at its truck factory in Jeonju, and another 16,000 cars are waiting to roll out of the factory in Asan. The workers worry about getting less work. But carmakers should fear a bigger nightmare.

A few days ago, Jack Ma, founder and chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, got in an RX5, the first Internet car developed by his company in collaboration with SAIC, one of China’s four state-owned automakers. The sports utility vehicle will be available in August, installed with Alibaba’s homegrown operating system, Yun OS, which will enable the car to tap into various Internet services. Alibaba described a new age of driving where “the smart operating system becomes the second engine of cars, while data is the new fuel.”

The very concept of a motor vehicle has regularly evolved from the world’s first practical automobile powered by an internal-combustion engine, which was developed by German engineer Karl Benz in 1885. Not only how a car is driven, but the very fuel that powers it is fast changing through the development and proliferation of electric vehicles. Smart or self-driving cars will one day send traditional engines and transmissions to the museum. Experts expect automated vehicles will hit the road in 2020 and their number to grow to 40 million by 2030.

Hyundai Motor has five years to decide whether it can stay in the automobile field.

But labor and management appear to be oblivious to the looming threat to their existence. Thousands of engine and transmission parts factories will be the first casualties. But the invincible unions will somehow find a way to stay alive. Their paycheck is assured until the legal retirement age of 60. There are few workers fretting about job insecurity because of the fast evolution in the vehicle front. They only worry about getting the best pay possible for the least work.

The union and management of Hyundai Motor wrangled over an additional 20 minutes in a shift instead of discussing their very viability during collective bargaining. The management agreed to scrap the night shift and instead run two eight-hour shifts in the morning and afternoon. The union agreed that the late shifters work an extra 20 minutes although their eight-hour work should end at 12:10 a.m. But many workers did not obey the agreement and went home at 12:10 a.m. They clashed with security. The union called it oppression and management accused it of violating their agreement.

There are several tricks factory workers use to idle at work. They finish their eight hours’ load in six hours and fool around for the remaining two hours. The line at Ulsan is among the slowest of all automobile assembly lines. The number of vehicles made per hour at Hyundai Motor’s assembly lines in the United States and the Czech Republic are twice the many than at the Ulsan plant. The workers at Ulsan are 1.6 times slower than at Beijing Hyundai. It is a wonder that a luxury car can be rolled out of an industrial site where complacency is so rife.

Hyundai workers in Ulsan are paid as much as workers at global automakers such as Ford, Toyota and Volkswagen. They are paid much more than workers in Hyundai Motor’s plants in India and China and slightly higher than those in Alabama. The union demanded an 8 percent hike in base salary and bonuses in this year’s negotiations. Investment for the future and ways to improve productivity did not come up in labor-management talks. Workers declined the option to be promoted to engineering researchers. They choose to remain as union workers. Talks have broken down. The union will vote whether to strike and if a decision is made, the workers will stage a rally in downtown Seoul.

Decent jobs have become scarcer for young people, because mighty unions like the one at Hyundai Motor refuse to share their jobs, incomes and other privileges.

The union should think about the future of their children instead of themselves for a change.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 12, Page 31

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.


*The author is a sociology professor of Seoul National University.

Song Ho-keun
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