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Union Chief Takes Less Radical Approach

Posted March. 16, 2006 03:13,   


In September 1986, a 26-year-old man who completed a six-month program at the Daewoo Motors career-training center joined the company’s assembly team. The man appeared to be just another worker, but he was actually a former elite university student who had graduated from the department of mechanical aerospace engineering at Seoul National University.

Scrapping his dream to become an engineer in order to join the labor movement, he successfully entered the company by concealing his advanced educational background, but was fired in April 1987 when it was revealed that he was a university graduate in disguise. He even served a year in prison in 1991 for labor strike activities.

He was reinstated in 1999, was again fired in 2001 in the aftermath of Daewoo Motors’ bankruptcy, and reinstated again in 2003.

In October 2004, about 21 years after he graduated, he was elected chairman of the labor union at GM Daewoo.

Instead of adopting the hard-line approach taken by past labor leaders, he has led the labor union by offering workers help instead of radicalism. His efforts have led to mutual benefits for both the company and his workers.

His name is Lee Seong-jae.

GM Daewoo President and CEO Nick Reilly and Lee are planning to hold a joint press conference to announce the company’s future vision today at the company’s Bupyeong plant in Incheon.

They will reportedly announce that all of the workers who applied for reinstatement among those who have yet to be reinstated will be soon.

The Bupyeong plant laid off about 1,700 workers because of financial difficulties in 2001, a year before GM acquired Daewoo Motor and gradually reinstated about 1,000 workers.

It is expected that all of the remaining former workers who want to be restored will come back before June, when the plant plans to fully gear up its production of sport utility vehicles.

It is the first-ever joint press conference by GM Daewoo labor and management since 1967 when the Shinjin Motor (former Daewoo Motor) labor union was formed. At the time, the labor union of Daewoo Motor was so strong that it was called the “Mecca of the labor movement” in the 1980s. A joint press conference was not imaginable at that time.

In a telephone interview with Dong-A Ilbo, Lee said, “Let’s talk about details in the press conference.”

Labor-Management Cooperation Yielded the Greatest Result-

GM excluded the Bupyeong Plant when it acquired Daewoo Motor in July 2002. And, the company said that “loss from labor strike must be below the year 2001 average of that of GM plants across the world” as the condition of its acquisition of the plant.

Against this backdrop, the Bupyeong plant was reduced to the status of a commissioned production company named Daewoo Incheon Motor. GM Daewoo and Daewoo Incheon Motor had one labor union in two companies.

Workers who suffered from the massive layoffs keenly felt the importance of workplace. The only way for Daewoo Incheon Motor to survive was a merger with GM Daewoo.

The administration body of the labor union, which was formed in 2004, was well aware of the situation. Lee greeted workers who come to the workplace every morning after being elected as chairman to listen to the voices from the production line.

It was assessed that the secret of the changed labor movement is Lee’s style of “inducing reasonable conclusions by comprehensively collecting opinions from unionized workers,” which is different from past unions that “reached conclusions first and just pushed them ahead.”

The labor and management heads of Daewoo Motor made pledges to continue their harmonious relationship last January in a joint event celebrating the first morning of the New Year. That day, Lee said, “If the past was a history of the struggle to survive, the future will be a time for mutual prosperity and the development of labor-management relations.”

The “peaceful co-existence” of labor and management bore fruit in the successful settlement of wage increase without labor strike last August and the acquisition of Daewoo Motor Incheon by GM in October the same year. GM Daewoo posted the highest sales record in its history, including its Daewoo Motor years, by selling 1.15 million units last year.

Sung-Won Joo Hyo-Lim Son swon@donga.com aryssong@donga.com