In the biggest confrontation yet in South Korea's siege of labor strife, 2,000 police officers faced off Tuesday against more than 10 times that many angry Hyundai workers, and the police gave in. The workers' success was capped later when a high government official told them that the government will strongly recommend to Hyundai management that it settle the dispute soon.
After a tense hourlong standoff on a country road outside this southeast coastal city, the police gave way without a rock or tear-gas grenade being thrown. They removed their roadblock and let workers of the giant Hyundai industrial group march 12 miles into Ulsan and hold a rally at the local stadium. The procession into the city was led by commandeered trucks, fork lifts and a fire truck.
The workers received a tumultuous welcome in the gritty factory city. Children shouted, women brought pails of drinking water to the curb side and many men smiled proudly. The factory hands strode in like victorious troops.
By early evening, however, the mood had turned sour. Workers carrying 2-by-2 staves virtually occupied the city. They blocked every major intersection, forcing traffic into back streets and alleys. They held their positions until nearly midnight, despite the shouts of angry motorists and an occasional fistfight.
At the rally, Labor Vice Minister Han Jin Hee, dispatched from Seoul, told about 30,000 workers that the government will strongly recommend to Hyundai management that it settle on two key labor demands:
--Recognition of worker-elected unions at Hyundai subsidiaries. Among South Korean companies with unions, most are pro-management organizations, often registered by petition of fewer than 40 workers. The No. 1 demand in nearly all of the more than 200 current labor disputes is formation and recognition of democratic unions elected by the rank and file. The breakthrough concession by Hyundai could set a national pattern for large industrial firms.
--Wage settlements, for which the government official set a target of Sept. 1. All Hyundai operations, disrupted earlier by strikes and parts shortages, have been shut down by a company lockout since Monday. It was not clear whether the Labor Ministry official's announcement meant that operations will be resumed, but some people at the rally apparently thought that the Sept. 1 deadline for a settlement means there will be no work--and no pay--until then, and there were some groans from the crowd.
Hyundai's new democratic unions had sought a 30% wage increase, but management officials have been quoted as saying a single-digit increase is more likely.
A third labor demand fell on deaf ears, as expected. The workers had called for the resignation of the Hyundai group's conservative founder and honorary chairman, Chung Ju Yung. Chung, in his early 80s, apparently has no intention of resigning from the firm he built into South Korea's leading conglomerate. He did agree, however, to give his company presidents full power to negotiate wage contracts with their workers.
Of Ulsan's 600,000 people, one in eight works for the Hyundai companies based here. Hyundai is South Korea's No. 1 auto maker and reportedly accounts for nearly 10% of the country's gross national product.
Until early this month, none of the Hyundai companies had a union. With the outbreak of labor disputes in early July, Hyundai officials quickly recognized pro-management unions. Until Tuesday, Chung insisted that new, broad-based unions could not be formed at Hyundai operations because they were already unionized--albeit at the last minute.
The dramatic developments here, while only part of South Korea's troubled labor scene, may set an example for big companies. South Korea's two other big auto and truck makers--Daewoo and Kia--are still shut down, for lack of parts, they say. The strike fever hit downtown Seoul on Tuesday as workers of the Lotte Hotel, the city's largest, walked out. But that strike was settled late Tuesday.
President Chun Doo Hwan, repeating an earlier call by the ruling party's President Roh Tae Woo, declared Tuesday that "both management and labor should exhibit a spirit of compromise."
"Workers' demands should be met if they are justifiable, but one at a time, not all at once," Chun said.
Opposition politicians have made similar pleas for settlement of labor issues and emphasized the need for democratic unions, a subject government spokesmen have avoided. But the Labor Ministry's role in the Hyundai dispute raises the possibility that the government may be siding to some extent with progressive labor policies. If so, this would leave corporate management without the official support it has received in the past on labor problems.
Tuesday's march on Ulsan began at the company's shipbuilding subsidiary, which the workers occupied Monday after the yard was closed. By midday Monday, the workers said, company engineers had shut off water and electricity in the yard and locked up the food stores.
As they assembled for the march Tuesday morning, the shipyard workers--joined by workers from other Hyundai subsidiaries--were angry. And they had not eaten since breakfast Monday.
They set out prepared for battle. Many wore dust filters for gas masks, others diving masks and swim goggles. Several men broke up 10-foot-long 2-by-2s and handed out the pieces. Wives and girlfriends hailed them as they passed Hyundai Technical High School, then fell in at the end of the column.
The shipyard lies at the end of a road that winds through a coastal valley. About an hour's march up the road, the gray-clad workers saw the adversary, two police vans parked across the road at the top of a rise. Behind the vans were green-uniformed riot police and two trucks equipped to fire tear gas. The marchers stopped about 200 yards away.
Out of sight of any buildings except the shipyard in the distant background, the standoff looked like something out of ancient history. Two armies, each with artillery--the fire truck and fork lifts for the workers; the tear-gas trucks for the police--paused to size each other up. The uncommitted clambered through the hillside's bean and rice fields to get a view of the action.
But a discussion between the Ulsan police chief and the workers produced an agreement to let the march proceed to the rally site. The chief did not explain his decision, but his forces were clearly outnumbered.
Forty minutes later, as the marchers passed through the center of the city, past Hyundai Pipe, Hyundai Motors and the Hyundai Department Store, clerks and bystanders cheered them on.
One of the marchers, referring to last month's clashes in Seoul and other cities, told a reporter, "Now I think I know how the students felt."