Union power ebbing as annual Korean labor campaigns kick off

SEOUL, South Korea: Airline pilots went on a brief strike and haven't ruled out a bigger one. Medical workers threatened a walkout but called it off. Angry laborers have gathered at noisy union rallies, criticizing the government and clamoring for justice. 

Welcome to South Korea's annual "summer struggle.'' 

But compared to years gone by, union campaigns have become much less intense and disruptive. 

During the 1970s and 1980s, South Korea's labor movement gained a reputation for being one of the most militant _ and violent _ in Asia, with frequent clashes between striking workers and riot police. 

Though no one rules out that things can still turn bloody, these days there are fewer strikes and hardly any major altercations with police. Union membership has declined and there isn't much public sympathy for organized labor causes or aggressive tactics. 

"They hesitate to strike because they know that public opinion is unfavorable to them,'' said Oh Suktae, an economist at Citigroup in Seoul. Accumulated strike days also hit workers in the pocketbook, which he said has a deterring effect. 

The number of working days lost to strikes last year was down 37 percent from 2000, according to Ministry of Labor statistics, while union members accounted for 11 percent of the total work force in 2003, down from 12 percent in 2000. 

While it appears that the power of unions has diminished, they're still capable of flexing their muscles at this time of year. 

Worker discontent typically culminates in the summer following negotiations with management starting in the spring. This year is no different, though major disruptions have so far been avoided. 

The country's largest union, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, which groups laborers from 24 industries ranging from taxi drivers to food workers, sponsored a one-day strike and rally on Thursday, closing off a major thoroughfare in central Seoul for a loud yet peaceful protest. 

The union's anger is focused on two issues: the death of Kim Tae-hwan, a union official who died after being run over by a truck during a protest against a company last month, and what it calls the government's failure to ensure better protection for so-called atypical workers, those who do full-time work but don't enjoy the benefits of regular employees. 

"The effects (of such rallies) have decreased,'' concedes Lee Jang-hoon, a union official from Yeosu, 450 kilometers (280 miles) southeast of Seoul who traveled to the capital for the protests. Like many participants, he wore a vest emblazoned with the words "Unity'' and "Fight.'' 

Asiana Airlines, the country's second-largest carrier, got through the 24-hour strike by its unionized pilots by using those not in the union as well as some who chose not to walk out, ensuring no disruptions to its flight schedule. 

Still, the pilots vowed to stage a full-scale strike within 10 days if there is no progress in their demands for increased job security and reduced flying hours. 

Pilots in the union at Korean Air, the nation's largest airline, have been staging a protest of sorts by taxiing at slower speeds on runways to draw attention to their demands for better benefits and job security, including extending the retirement age to 59 from the current 55. No major inconveniences have been reported due to their actions. 

Medical workers, meanwhile, canceled their planned strike Friday at the last minute. 

Probably more disruptive to South Korea's economy than the labor action is the recent surge in oil prices. The nation imports nearly all its oil, and the Bank of Korea cut its 2005 economic growth forecast this week, citing higher crude costs. 

Also, South Korea's currency, the won, touched a six-month low against the dollar, which is a bit of a double-edged sword for the Korean economy. It can help South Korea's big auto and electronics exporters by making their products cheaper overseas and boosting the value of foreign revenues when converted back to won. But it can also raise the cost of imports like oil, hurting consumer spending and boosting corporate costs. 

One bright spot has been stocks, which rallied Thursday to a 5 1/2-year high as investors scooped up shares in companies, including Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor, whose overseas sales benefit from a falling currency. 

The Bank of Korea on Thursday kept interest rates at record low for an eighth straight month to bolster the economy. The government's hopes for a pickup in consumer spending suffered a setback the same day after consumer sentiment fell to a five-month low in June. - AP

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