Walter Reuther is Alive, Well, and Leading an Auto Workers Union…in Korea!

Labor Organizing
Union members, left, wearing head bands saying 'Unity Fight,' at negotiations with Hyundai in Ulsan, Korea.

New Orleans   Yes, Walter Reuther, the great, visionary, charismatic, progressive, and disciplined labor leader of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the United States is alive and well and leading an auto workers union, but his name is Moon Yong-moon and his union is in Korea.  Rather than representing workers at GM, Ford, and Chrysler, he is leading workers aggressively at Hyundai and its subsidiary, Kia Motors.   Today they are once again embarking on strikes at both facilities on issues that would have seemed frontline in Reuther’s day, but now seem exotic:  ending night shifts, sharing a percentage of the profit, and hiring contract workers.  In these days when on the front page of the Wall Street Journal we read about the ass whipping taken by the Machinists at Caterpillar, is it possible that buried in the same newspaper we can find real hope and inspiration from Korea?  What’s going on here?!?

First the economy and the fiscal position of these Korean car companies is advantageous.  Their inventory in the US  is in short supply and their sales have been robust, giving workers some leverage.

Secondly, the unions do not face the same “lockout” pressures in Korean labor law, so the union has been able to take the company out on strike on a day-to-day basis depending on the progress at the negotiating table, which is generally not possible in the USA.  Not counting the 8-hour strikes the union has called for yesterday and today at both companies, in the last month according to strikes have cost the world’s 5th largest automaker (based on combined sales) a billion dollars.  At Hyundai the union has “hit the bricks” 18 times in the last 5 weeks since July 13th and a dozen times at Kia.

Thirdly, the issues are broad based.  The union has been on a long term campaign led by Moon Yong-Moon to eliminate the graveyard shift.  Over the years they have won limitations to 20 hours of plant operation, but in this round of negotiations they want to cap work not at two 10-hour shifts per day, but at two 8-hour shifts per day with no worker on the clock past midnight.  Why?  Moon argues according to the report in the Journal that “night-shift work is unhealthy.”  In an interview with reporter, Kyong-Ae Choi, (who also wrote the piece as part of the Murdoch-owned DowJones Company) Moon said, “working through the night has caused chronic fatigue, sleep disorders, and indigestion for workers” and “in some cases, it is also to blame for family troubles.”  What union leader, worker, or company executive would ever disagree with Moon on any of that?  Nobody!  But, when was the last time any American union made the fight.  This is so “old school,” that modern workers wouldn’t even believe it was ever part of any school!   How would the company maintain production?  Here Walter Reuther Moon says simply that the company would have to hire more workers.  The company predictably says the existing workers would have to become more productive.

The union also wants 30% of the company’s “net profit to be used for performance-based pay.”  You would think that is exactly what would make the workers more productive and align with the company’s goals, but not surprisingly, the company is balking at this Reuther-type proposal as well.

The latest strike action came after some progress on all of these issues.  There’s serious money on the in the company’s offer, though not up to the union’s demand, and shockingly to North American unions, there’s real movement on shortening shifts and hiring-in contract workers.  According to Kyong’s report in

Monday, Hyundai offered to invest KRW300 billion in facilities to introduce the daytime-only shift system in 2013 and to gradually give permanent contracts to more than 3,000 subcontracted workers by 2015.

Moon may lead his members to victory or something close to it.  He’s not a typical 21st century labor leader.  According to Kyong in the Journal:

The 48-year-old has been fired three times and arrested four times for union activities since joining Hyundai in 1986.  Short and usually wearing close cropped hair, he is known for eschewing the niceties of union-company bargaining, avoiding handshakes and smiles at negotiations.

Moon may be a hard-ass but he is also a dreamer.

“I want an equal partnership with the company on behalf of union members…”

Who says crazy things like that and then tries to make them happen anymore in these decades since Reuther?  Not much of anybody!


Hyundai union chief Moon Yong-moon (middle)