Hundreds of South Korean troops were deployed to work at subway stations yesterday during a strike as union action expanded to a car plant while activists at a major oil refiner defied arrest and deadlines to return to work.
The wave of strikes pose a serious test for President Roh Moo-hyun, a former labor lawyer who has previously been criticized by employers and foreign investors for being too soft on labor unions.
The widening strike action comes when the economy, Asia's third-largest, is struggling with weak domestic spending and depressed business investment.
An official at the state prosecution office said yesterday it would likely apply for court warrants to arrest union leaders at LG-Caltex Oil Corp for organizing the strike.
But he denied prosecutors had come under pressure to act against the strikes, which the government has called illegal.
"It's not true that our decision is being influenced by the presidential office, but there are procedures we have to take before we actually arrest someone," said the official, who declined to be named.
More than 850 troops were deployed at stations to help after an estimated 65 percent of unionized subway workers in Seoul and three other cities took their strike into a second day, officials said.
Workers ignored a 9am deadline set by one of the two subway operators in Seoul, government officials said. The other operator had set the deadline at 11am.
And most strikers did not return to work at the huge oil refinery complex run by LG-Caltex Oil by an 8am deadline set by management, company officials said.
LG-Caltex, a joint venture set up in 1967 between South Korea's LG Group and ChevronTexaco, said only 32 union members had returned to work, and 802 were still absent.
It said one-third of its plants had resumed normal operations and now aimed to bring its refinery back to full operations in a week or two. It normally produces 650,000 barrels per day and accounts for one-quarter of domestic refining capacity.
The unrest in the industrial sector spread into the automobile sector when workers made good on a threat to strike at Ssangyong Motor, a maker of sports utility vehicles, the company said.
The company's 5,600-member union has staged a partial strike since July 12 to push for higher wages and job security.