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Ssangyong workers and managers sit down to talk
Hint of optimism in the air during the first discussions since June 19
July 31, 2009
Management representatives of Ssangyong Motor, left, and labor union leaders, right, sit at the negotiating table yesterday to strike a deal to end the laid-off workers’ occupation of the automaker’s factory in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi. Provided by Ssangyong Motor
PYEONGTAEK, Gyeonggi - Representatives of the Ssangyong Motor labor union and management resumed negotiations for the first time in 42 days over the fate of fired workers.

With many fearing that the Ssangyong crisis will turn into a catastrophe, the two sides agreed Wednesday night to resume talks. Negotiations began at 9 a.m. yesterday, and continued for about three and a half hours in the morning. After a lunch break, the meeting resumed at 4 p.m.

Sources said that after the morning session, labor union delegates briefed striking workers about the talks.

Han Sang-kyun, head of the Ssangyong Motor labor union, led five union negotiators, while Park Young-taek, a court-appointed manager of Ssangyong, led two company negotiators. The talks took place inside a container located at the “peace zone” between the headquarters building and the paint factory.

Though both sides remained tight-lipped about the progress of the meeting, sources said management proposed that 40 percent of 976 workers slated to be fired could keep their jobs under the condition that they take unpaid leaves. Sources said the union demanded that more workers should be offered the deal.

While no outcome was made available as of yesterday evening, sources said preparatory contacts had taken place before the official negotiation began yesterday. Both sides showed a willingness to make concessions, sources said.

“We want to end the situation now,” Choi Sang-jin, a Ssangyong executive director, told the press one hour into the morning meeting. “We want to resolve the situation through dialogue, focusing on the fate of laid-off workers. Both sides are talking with flexibility, so we will do our best.”

Park, the court-appointed manager, told the union negotiators that he understands the strikers’ desire to save the company, Choi said. “Let’s have heartfelt talks so that we can go back to producing cars,” Park was quoted as saying.

“It’s regrettable that relationship between the union and management has lacked trust,” Han, the chief negotiator of the union, was quoted as saying. “It’s been more than 70 days since we occupied the plant. Let’s put our wisdom together to peacefully bring the situation to an end.”

According to Choi, both sides agreed that they would not hold each other accountable for the crisis.

Choi said he believes that both sides will make some concessions in order to reach a compromise. “We sat down for the talks because there is a possibility of change,” Choi said.

Faced with an acute credit crunch, Korea’s fourth largest automaker filed for court receivership in February and in April made public a plan to layoff 2,646, or 36 percent, of its workforce. Protesting the decision, the unionized workers have occupied Ssangyong’s Pyeongtaek plant since May 22, paralyzing company operations.

Despite the union’s fierce protest, management decided it was necessary to lay off 976 workers on June 8. Negotiations over the workers’ fate broke down on June 19.

While talks were suspended, tensions escalated rapidly inside and outside the plant as violent clashes between Ssangyong workers and unionized strikers erupted. Police subsequently attempted to enter the plant, but failed to remove the strikers from the facility that was brimming with flammable materials.

Since the company announced a plan to fire workers, the union has insisted that not a single worker can be laid off. On June 26, management proposed that 450 of the 976 voluntarily leave the company, while another 320 would be assigned to other jobs. The rest were to take unpaid leaves, while the company promised to bring them back gradually by 2012.

The union, which rejected the plan at the time, recently changed its position and showed a willingness to compromise, agreeing to the principle that some workers will have to lose their jobs.

In an attempt to end the standoff, some of Ssangyong’s suppliers said that they would hire the fired workers.


By Ser Myo-ja, Jang Joo-young [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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