A high-ranking union official at Hyundai Motor is reported to have said that striking to resist the import of American beef is justified since productivity would be hurt if people get sick after eating beef from U.S. cattle infected with mad cow disease. The union official's comments came in response to a call by Hyundai Motor management to refrain from holding politically motivated strikes. The umbrella Korean Confederation of Trade Unions had ordered member unions on Friday to vote on whether to strike to support protests against U.S. beef imports.
Unionized workers at Hyundai Motor stand to benefit the most from the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. Once it goes into effect, Korean cars with engines smaller than 3,000-cc will see their 2.5 percent tariff abolished, while Korean-made passenger cars and vans with engines bigger than 3,000-cc will see their 25 percent tariff removed within three years. Korean-made trucks sold in the U.S. will see tariffs disappear within 10 years. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Korea exports hundreds of thousands of cars to the U.S. (690,000 in 2006), while American automakers sell less than 5,000 (3,000 in 2006) to Korea. He said the Korea-U.S. FTA was "badly flawed" since it would make this situation even less advantageous for U.S. carmakers.
A group of Grand National Party lawmakers who went to Washington D.C. for additional beef talks said there are already movements in the U.S. to link the beef issue with renegotiating the auto segment of the FTA. If the FTA deal breaks down or the auto segment is revised to be disadvantageous for Korea, and Hyundai and Kia fail to boost their inroads into the world's largest market, then Hyundai and Kia auto workers will be the first to suffer from cutbacks in production hours and layoffs. So a strike by Hyundai unionists in support of the beef protests is suicidal. They are acting like spoiled children.
The head of the KCTU, which counts Hyundai's unionized workers as members, said it originally wanted to launch a full-pitch-assault-style strike against the Lee Myung-bak administration, like in soccer. But he said the Korean Transportation Workers' Union ended up striking first, so the KCTU shifted its strategy to baseball. The first batter is the KTWU, which went on strike starting last Friday, while the construction workers' union, which begins striking today, will be second batter. The Korean Metal Workers' Union, which Hyundai Motor unionists are part of, and the Korea Railway Workers’ Union will be fourth and fifth. A KCTU spokesman said the latest nationwide strike should not be referred to as a "summer" offensive, since they will continue "until it snows." If they try to strike until it snows, they will first be out of their jobs and no longer be able to strike.