Thu, Nov 23, 2006 - Page 5 News List

S Koreans hold nationwide strikes, rallies

UNWELCOME REFORMS Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans, most of them car makers, went on strike, but protests were not as heated as expected


South Korean unionists and activists called strikes and rallies nationwide yesterday against proposed labor reforms and a US free trade deal but the response was more muted than for previous protests.

Unions at three major car makers stopped work for just four hours instead of the requested eight and workers at a fourth ignored what some labour leaders called a "political" strike.

Auto workers are normally among the nation's most militant.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) had on Tuesday urged its members, notably auto workers, to stage a day-long stoppage in protest at government labor reform proposals and talks on the free trade agreement (FTA).

The number of strikers, mostly auto workers, exceeded 200,000 nationwide yesterday but the labor ministry said only 59,000 workers at 112 workplaces joined the walkout.

Unions at top automaker Hyundai Motor, its sister company Kia Motors and Ssangyong Motor staged a four-hour afternoon strike. GM Daewoo workers did not stop work.

"This political strike does not really mean to bring big damage to the company," Song Hee-seok, a Hyundai Motor union leader, said.

GM Daewoo's union said assembly line operations were normal.

"Only union leaders will take part in a union rally," said Kim Yoon-bok, a union spokesman.

"The proposed strike is somewhat political. Most workers on the assembly lines may not really feel the urgency for staging such a strike," Kim said.

Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors lost production of 2,500 cars due to a four-hour partial strike last week. The auto industry is a key growth engine for the export-driven economy.

"Hyundai and Kia have already had a long spell of strikes over wage negotiations and they are under public pressure not to stage further strikes," said Kim Jun-ki, an analyst at the Korean Automobile Manufacturers' Association.

Unions at automakers owned or run by foreign companies no longer go on strike for political purposes, he said.

"They have turned practical for the sake of unionized workers' welfare," he added.

KCTU said 8,000 teachers, upset at a new evaluation system, as well as chemical industry workers and truckers also joined the stoppage.

It said four-hour stoppages would be staged daily from today until Nov. 28 and another eight-hour strike on Nov. 29.

The education ministry said 3,500 teachers joined the strike, which Education Minister Kim Shin-il on Tuesday called illegal, but schools were little affected.

A coalition of civic groups joined unionists campaigning against the planned FTA with the US, claiming some 71,000 people would take to the streets of Seoul and 12 provincial cities yesterday.

Police said 6,500 had rallied outside Seoul's City Hall in bitter cold by mid-afternoon. The crowd was expected to grow to 10,000 later.

Teachers, wearing red headbands and vests denouncing the evaluation system and the FTA, gathered outside City Hall and were later joined by striking workers, farmers and other civic activists.

Riot police were deployed but no clashes were reported.

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