All eyes on whether unionized Samsung Electronics workers can disrupt chip production

Posted on : 2024-07-08 16:51 KST Modified on : 2024-07-08 17:25 KST
The National Samsung Electronics Union went on strike starting Monday
Members of the National Samsung Electronics Union hold a “cultural event” rally outside the company’s offices on May 24, 2024. (Kim Bong-gyu/Hankyoreh) 
Members of the National Samsung Electronics Union hold a “cultural event” rally outside the company’s offices on May 24, 2024. (Kim Bong-gyu/Hankyoreh) 

The National Samsung Electronics Union (NSEU), the largest union within Samsung Electronics, began a three-day general strike on Monday. As the first actual strike in the electronics-maker's 55-year history, it remains to be seen how much it will impact key operations such as Samsung’s semiconductor sector. 

According to NSEU statements, the union held a rally in front of Samsung Electronics’ Hwaseong Campus in Gyeonggi Province on Monday at 11 am to kick off the strike. The union had held negotiations over salary contracts with management since January, but reached no agreement. After holding an internal vote, the NSEU formally decided to conduct a general strike. 

The NSEU partook in a last-minute round of negotiations mediated by the National Labor Relations Commission at the end of last month, but the two sides once again failed to reach an agreement. The NSEU formally announced its decision to strike on July 2. The strike is scheduled to last from Monday through Wednesday. The opening rally was held on Monday, while the union plans to conduct “educational sessions” for members on strike for the remaining two days.   

The union conducted a sort of strike on June 7, the Friday after Memorial Day, when members collectively used paid time off. The strike that began on Monday, however, is the union’s first “no-work, no-pay” strike. It remains to be seen whether the strike will achieve the union’s objectives of “disrupting normal company operations” to successfully communicate its position.

The NSEU has over 28,000 members, roughly 23% of Samsung Electronics’ total workforce of around 120,000 employees. The union expects at least 5,000 members to partake in the strike. As this is not a striking figure compared to the union’s total membership, some have reasoned that the strike may not have the impact that the union desires. 

However, a significant number of union members work in Samsung’s Device Solutions division, which comprises the memory, system LSI and foundry businesses. Semiconductor production involves a meticulous chain of interdependent production stages. A slight hiccup in a single stage prevents the next stage from even beginning, making the ramifications of the strike hard to predict.

The only time that Samsung Electronics has ever stopped semiconductor production was in 2007, when a blackout disrupted operations for two hours. When the Hankyoreh questioned a union member about the specific number of people who will partake in the strike, an NSEU spokesperson said, “The majority of members in the sector have expressed interest in partaking in the strike, so we expect it to be quite impactful,” avoiding a direct answer.

“We are promoting the strike to maximize the number of participating members,” the spokesperson added. 

On Tuesday, Samsung called for employees “vital to safety and facility maintenance” or “those whose duties are directly tied to the daily lives of employees” to refrain from partaking in the strike, citing “collective labor-management agreements” regarding workers who are normally barred from striking. Company management is reportedly observing union activity and the evolution of the strike with vigilance. Regarding the aforementioned “collective labor-management agreements,” an NSEU spokesperson called them “statements rather than agreements.”

“At no point have we ever settled on such agreements with company management,” the spokesperson added. 

“We have already consulted our legal advisers on the matter, and there is nothing to prevent our members from going on strike.” 

On Tuesday, the NSEU announced its intentions to strike. The union cited insufficient pay raises, demanded improvements to the company’s incentive and bonus schemes, and called for more paid days off. 

By Park Tae-woo, staff reporter; Kim Hae-jeong, staff reporter

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