By Choi Kyong-ae
Unionized workers at Hyundai Heavy Industries are moving to switch to a militant umbrella federation, the company and its union said Wednesday.
Since it took power in October, the company's "hawkish" labor union leadership has said that its predecessors failed to meet expectations in efforts to raise wages and improve welfare benefits and other working conditions, said a Hyundai Heavy official by telephone.
"Also spurred by higher wages and better working conditions at Hyundai Motor in the same neighborhood, the new leadership seems to be considering re-entering the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) to seek help during wage talks (with the company)," the official said. He asked not to be named.
Hyundai Heavy and Hyundai Motor are the country's two major exporters based in Ulsan, four hours away from Seoul via the KTX express train.
The world's biggest shipbuilder by orders declined comment on the union's move.
Hyundai Heavy and its union have signed wage deals over the past 19 years without suffering any industrial action. Their strike-free relations have long been touted as a role model for labor-management relations.
Union spokesman Kim Hyung-gyun said the status quo does not reflect the strike-free track record at the Ulsan-based shipyard.
For example, "the levels of basic salary at Hyundai Heavy are still far lower than the basic pay levels enjoyed by Hyundai Motor workers," Kim said.
Currently, Hyundai Heavy workers are paid 20 million won (about $19,000) less than their counterparts at Hyundai Motor according to the Hyundai Heavy union's calculations, he said adding the wage gap is widening further.
In particular, working conditions at the shipyard have not improved as expected in recent years as the 2008 financial crisis hit the shipbuilding industry, according to the union.
To be part of the KCTU, it takes agreement of two-thirds of Hyundai Heavy's 18,000 unionized workers.
Thus, the union leadership will take time to improve the understanding of its members on why they need to join forces with the KCTU to achieve higher wages and better working conditions, the union spokesman said.
Hyundai Heavy Union Chief Chung Byung-mo already began his effort to reenter the KCTU by joining a nationwide industrial action staged by the KCTU on Feb. 25 in Ulsan in protest against the government's labor policies.
The shipbuilder was a member of the KCTU a decade ago. Back then, a worker sent to the Hyundai Heavy yard by a subcontractor burned himself to death after suffering poor treatment.
"The KCTU struck Hyundai Heavy off its membership due to the company's mistreatment of the incident. The company didn't regard the dead worker as one of its workers," Kim said.