Monday, July 24, 2006

some royal fucked-upedness at POSCO?

I'm not seeing anything about this on any of the major blogs, so I guess I'll pick up the slack.

POSCO is the fifth-largest steel company in the world. POSCO union workers in Pohang had been on strike since late June (the strike appears to be over). My buddy Jang-woong-- he of the "get off your ass and exercise" injunction-- was down in Pohang in June for training... he just started with POSCO and won't be union, as far as I know. My friend had hoped to leave the stress and insanity of corporate giant LG, where he'd worked in marketing, but this seems like a case of "out of the frying pan, into the fire." With POSCO reeling from financial and property damage thanks to worker shenanigans in Pohang, I'm left to wonder just how happy the atmosphere in POSCO's Seoul offices must be.

You see, the union workers hadn't merely been demonstrating:

July 20 marked one week since the construction workers union of Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province, seized the headquarters of POSCO.

It rained in downtown Pohang, creating a desolate atmosphere. A taxi driver in his 50s headed toward the headquarters of POSCO located in Nam-gu, Pohang and said, “If this isn’t a war zone, what is it? I am so afraid that my skin crawls. It is so sad to see my hometown where I have spent my entire life turn into chaos. It isn’t a problem that this affects my work, but I am concerned about this regretful situation.”

Unlike the Pohang steel mill, the headquarters building of POSCO inside the Pohang steel industry complex looks like a park surrounded by woods, but due to the siege of the union workers it has now become a complete ruin.

The windows between the fifth and the 12th floors, which are occupied by about 1,000 union workers, have placards like “Fight to the end” and the surroundings of the building are covered with waste and trash.

The union workers threw garbage, plastic bottles filled with water, and stones taken from the walls’ of the building outside and showed their determination to continue fighting.

When Cheong Wa Dae and both ruling and opposition parties announced yesterday that they would firmly deal with the illegal siege, the tensions around the building escalated to war zone level right before the start of a battle. The union workers who have been occupying the surroundings of the building for over a week, and the 7,000 policemen confronting them were just waiting orders to enter the building.

But wait! There's more:

The shop owners and demonstrators exchanged verbal lashes, the former demanding, “Stop the demonstration so we can go on about our business,” while the latter armed with steel pipes threatened, “If you want to continue your business, keep your mouth shut.”

The shop owners lamented, “The steel pipes seized by police amounted to a small hill. Is the Republic of Korea, a country that is lawless [in] the middle of the day, a law-governed country?”

According to the above Dong-A article, there's more at stake here than just the union dispute: the city's reputation as a place to do business is in the balance.

Pohang entrepreneurs are anxious lest Pohang [become branded] the worst place to conduct business. Business owners all point out that the violent images of POSCO, the symbol of [Pohang's] economy, being [besieged and] broadcasted all over the country is critical.

I had no clue that things had gotten this bad. How much money was POSCO losing?

According to POSCO on July 16, the construction labor union’s strike that started from June 29 suspended 24 facility construction projects, including the FINEX factory, resulting in [damages worth] over 10 billion won a day and over 100 billion won in total as of that day.

The damage amount related to office work paralysis is difficult to estimate.

POSCO announced, “Almost all works, including contract, facilities, procurement, and personnel affairs, except production and sales, have been suspended since July 13 afternoon. We are in a situation where, even on holiday, office workers who have to do urgent assignments get scattered to take temporary seats, including research centers, or keep in contact through cell phones to do their jobs.”

Upshot: my friend has just signed on to work at a company that is being strangled by a goddamn union. I'm once again reminded of union strangleholds in France, where les syndicats can shut down public transportation in major cities almost at will. (We've got unions in the US with comparable power, and they occasionally make the news, too. However, I can't say that I've heard many stories of US unions doing damage comparable to what we see regularly in the French and Korean news.)

Just to be clear: I don't think unions are inherently evil, but, much like large and powerful churches, they have their scary, Mafiaesque side, and that's apparently what we're seeing in Pohang. The sick part of this is that POSCO workers are among the more highly paid workers out there. Get a load of this:

Pohang [specialty] construction union workers, who have been launching a strike every year [and complaining of] their inferior working conditions, turned out to have much better working conditions than workers of other regions in the nation.

According to the research findings of the Korea Labor Institute conducted in 2004, the working conditions of temporary workers in Pohang were approximately 40 percent better compared to [those in] other regions.

The other conditions that the union demanded [of] the Speciality Contractors Association (SCA), an employers’ body, corresponded to a pay raise of 38.7 percent. As they also demanded a 15 percent pay raise, the actual pay increase rate was 53.7 percent.

The SCA increased the wage by 12.95 percent in 2003 and 14.65 percent in 2004. In 2005, the union gained 7.78 percent in wage increases without a strike.

“We have been raising their pay groundlessly because of the strikes. However, there has been a decrease in the labor productivity of temporary or daily workers as they are aging. The wage level of the construction workers in Pohang is almost as high as any other regular worker,” an official of the SCA said.

Although the wages of temporary workers vary according to their skills, in general, they earn between 3.0 million won and 10 million won per month, according to the SCA.

And when workers are involved in site developments, which make up some 20 percent of the occasions, they get paid an average of some 6.0 million to 10 million won per month.

I'm sure the life of a steelworker is a hell of a lot more difficult, physically speaking, than the life of a plump English teacher at a university. I'm sure the 3-10 million per month is deserved. But if I were in that position, I doubt I'd see why I needed to agitate for even more money. Maybe that's just me.

My buddy Tom is the one who alerted me to all this nonsense. My first thought is for my Korean buddy, who's got a kid on the way and who deserves better than to find himself, once again, in a pressure cooker. He's based in Seoul, luckily, so he won't immediately feel the effects of this strike, but I can't imagine that life is rosy. Staffers are probably worried about the future, and if I were among the execs, I'd be looking at ways to put that union back in its place. Unions are good when they fight for workers' rights. When they get fat and start demanding even more, it's time to get nasty. Tom mentioned that some of the workers who occupied the POSCO offices in Pohang used jury-rigged flamethrowers against police (this is hearsay from Tom; link is pending).

To end this on a sinister note:

The strike, police have discovered, was meticulously planned. This wasn't a sudden eruption of righteous anger from the proletariat.

In the meantime, who suffers? Certainly not the unionists themselves. The citizens of Pohang have to live with the shame brought upon them by this criminal activity. The municipal authorities and business leaders have to wonder whether they can persuade anyone to invest in their city. POSCO itself has to worry about its international reputation, credit standing, and all the rest. The selfish actions of a union may have put all this in jeopardy.

[NB: Email me with a dissenting opinion if you think you've got info about the union's side of the story.]


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