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Tugboat Operators Go On Strike in Busan, Ulsan

Posted August. 08, 2009 08:04,   


Tugboats operators in Busan and Ulsan went on strike yesterday, partially suspending logistical operations in the two southern ports.

With unionized tugboat operators at the Busan and Ulsan branches of their national trade union going on strike, 89 percent of tugboats in Ulsan took part in the walkout. This temporarily suspended the docking of export and import vessels at piers.

The operators’ union is a member of the militant Korea Confederation of Trade Unions.

In Ulsan, where 26 of 29 tugboats joined the strike, 31 large vessels each weighing more than 10,000 tons, including 17 in the morning and 14 in the afternoon, were scheduled to enter and leave the port. Due to geographical obstacles and low depths on seashores, large vessels must be guided by tugboats to safely dock at and depart from piers.

With only three tugboats run by non-unionized operators piloting vessels, the docking of more than 10 vessels was delayed more than two hours. The vessels included export freight vessels, including oil and crude oil tankers and car carriers that were to depart for China.

As a result, the port of Ulsan’s emergency countermeasure center urged other major ports including Pohang in North Gyeongsang Province, Masan in South Gyeongsang Province, and Mokpo in South Jeolla Province, to send 17 tugboats in assistance.

“The union threatened to go on strike Sunday but began one early this morning in a surprise move. Hence, our response has a bit belated,” the center said. “If we mobilize the 17 tugboats from other ports and the three run by non-unionized operators, we can normalize operations at the port of Ulsan by Saturday morning.”

Busan, Korea’s largest port and the fifth biggest in the world, continued normal operations yesterday despite the strike. With 22 of 32 tugboats operating normally, a feared logistical freeze never materialized.

Six ports nationwide have unions for tugboat operators. Of these, the ones in Busan, Ulsan, Yeosu and Masan are affiliated with the labor confederation.

The union branch in Ulsan said, “The strike occurred because management did not guarantee our union’s legitimacy and labor activities,” adding, “If management recognizes the union, we will seek to resolve the dispute through dialogue, but if not, we’ll go on strike for an indefinite period.”

The unions in Busan and Ulsan include captains of boats registered as members. Based on its interpretation of labor law, however, the Labor Ministry said yesterday, “Captains are considered managers who command and supervise crewmen under the Labor Union Act. Hence, they are not qualified to become union members.”

The ministry’s decision is likely to become a new variable in how the strike unfolds.

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