Yoon hints at deploying police to break up shipbuilders strike

Posted on : 2022-07-19 17:01 KST Modified on : 2022-07-19 17:01 KST
A joint statement delivered by Cabinet members referred to the industrial action as “illegal” 12 times
Choo Kyung-ho, the deputy prime minister and minister of finance, delivers a joint statement on July 18 alongside other Cabinet members regarding the DSME labor union situation. (provided by the Ministry of Economy and Finance)
Choo Kyung-ho, the deputy prime minister and minister of finance, delivers a joint statement on July 18 alongside other Cabinet members regarding the DSME labor union situation. (provided by the Ministry of Economy and Finance)

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and the ministers of five Cabinet offices hinted at the possibility of dispatching authorities to respond to a strike by the Geoje, Tongyeong, and Goseong shipbuilding subcontract workers belonging to the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU).

The message signals that the administration is ratcheting up the pressure in response to the strike.

The South Gyeongsang chapter of the KMWU, which is affiliated with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), fiercely denounced the actions by the administration, which it accused of pursuing a hard-line response rather than presenting solutions and of characterizing the desperate battle by subcontracted employees of Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) as an “illegal” action.

At a luncheon meeting Monday with Prime Minister Han Duck-soo at the presidential office in Seoul’s Yongsan District, Yoon received a report on the current situation with the DSME strike.

Stressing the need to “establish the rule of law,” he declared that the “illegal situations at industry workplaces must be brought to an end,” an official with the presidential office reported.

Speaking of Yoon’s remarks, another key official said, “You can interpret them as signaling his intent not to leave the situation unaddressed for too long, whether that means ending it by reaching a deal or through other means.”

“I sensed that he was not completely ruling out the possibility of sending in the authorities,” the official added.

In a meeting of Blue House senior secretaries earlier that morning, Yoon said, “Given what an enormous impact this has on our economy, ministers in the relevant agencies will need to work more aggressively to resolve the issue.”

Speaking at the Central Government Complex in Seoul the same day, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Finance Choo Kyung-ho delivered a joint statement on behalf of five related Cabinet offices, including his own Ministry of Economy and Finance, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of the Interior and Safety, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, and the Ministry of Employment and Labor.

“If labor and management are unable to devise a reasonable alternative through dialogue, and if the current illegal occupation and strike continues, the administration will have no choice but to respond sternly according to the law and principles,” he said.

“The actions of the subcontractors union in exclusively occupying key work facilities are in clear violation of the law, and [the members] must be held responsible in terms of criminal punishment and compensation, including for any property damage,” he added.

He went on to note that the judiciary “took the rare action of specifically mentioning the illegality [of the strike] in its July 15 decision on the application for an injunction to bar the assembly, stating that the actions have ‘gone beyond the scope of a legitimate industrial action.’”

Indeed, the three-page statement mentioned the word “illegal” a total of 12 times.

Last Friday, the second civil affairs division of the Tongyeong branch of the Changwon District Court ruled that the union’s occupation of the DSME No. 1 dock exceeded the scope of legitimate industrial action. The court issued an eviction order, while ordering the payment of 3 million won (US$2,300) a day to the company in the event of noncompliance.

As of Monday, no progress had been made in four-party discussions by labor and management representatives of DSME and the subcontractors, which had been taking place since Friday, the day of the court’s decision. Analysts said this fact may have factored into the administration’s decision to add pressure by hinting at the possibility of sending in the authorities.

The National Police Agency said Monday that it would “need to observe the situation through July 22, which is the deadline for the fourth summons of the leadership.”

"After that, we will reapply for arrest warrants, and if those are issues, we may consider whether to suppress [the strike],” it continued.

On July 1, the Geoje Police Station in South Gyeongsang Province requested arrest warrants for three members of the DSME subcontractors’ union leadership. The prosecutors declined, insisting that the members needed to be “given time to present themselves.”

According to this explanation, the lack of any clashes among union members means that the police are not in a position to preemptively quash the strike before the warrants are issued.

In a statement Monday, the South Gyeongsang chapter of the KMWU denounced the administration for “disparaging as ‘illegal’ the burning demands of the subcontracting workers and alluding to the possibility of the unilateral hard-line response of sending in the authorities.”

“To denounce the ‘illegality’ of a life-or-death struggle by people who have enclosed themselves in a space of just 0.3 pyeong [one square meter] amounts to telling workers that they should just ‘drop dead,’” the chapter added.

The KCTU said, “The government has ignored its responsibility to make Korea Development Bank a part of the negotiations as the company’s de facto owners and to force DSME to take proactive steps, and is instead passing all of the responsibility off onto the subcontractor employees and coercing them into ending their struggle.”

The KMWU planned to hold an emergency press conference at the KCTU headquarters at 2 pm Tuesday to “denounce the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s statement on the DSME subcontracting workers’ strike.”

By Park Tae-woo, staff reporter; Park Jong-o, staff reporter; Bae Ji-hyun, staff reporter; Park Su-ji, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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