Voting with their feet

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Voting with their feet

It is a rare scene at a Korean workplace with an ongoing labor dispute. The Renault Samsung Motors factory in Busan was operating almost normally as 66 percent of union workers defied the leadership order to go on an “indefinite” general strike from Wednesday. When including non-union members, 74 percent of workers reported to work, allowing the factory to run as if there were no strike at all.

Renault Samsung has been in a labor dispute over 2019 wage terms from June last year. There had been 62 strikes, causing disruption in the production of 14,320 vehicles and financial losses of 280 billion won ($236 million). The union and management finally reached a tentative agreement last month, but the terms were voted down in the general union vote.

Although displeased with the agreed terms, the union chose not to walk away from their work as employees believed a strike was not the best way to settle differences. They fear they would further lose work, or even their employment, if they kept their militant ways. The vote of disapproval slightly exceeded the majority, at 51.8 percent, though most of the workers on the line supported the agreement. The union was upset when the leadership chose to go on a general strike instead of attempting fine-tuning.

Renault Samsung used to be dispute-free until a hard-line leadership took over the union. The protracted dispute caused major trouble for the automaker during the domestic slump. Output from the Busan factory plunged more than 35 percent on year in the first five months of this year. The management hinted that it could take orders for exports to its Spanish plant if disputes continue. If the Busan plant loses further work, its viability could be in jeopardy.

Jobs are at stake at automobile manufacturing sites all across the world amid migration to ride-sharing and future mobility. A merger between Renault and Fiat Chrysler flopped due to union protests on concern for job losses. The breakdown could lead to global restructuring and affect the Busan plant. The union remains firm in its demands for wages during this strike period. The leadership should move fast to draw up a settlement to prevent further and longer-run losses for the workers at Renault Samsung.

JoongAng Sunday, June 8, Page 30
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