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Korea`s seasonal wave of labor strikes, or the so-called summer strife, is expected to hit the nation beginning this week, stirring concerns of severe labor unrest in key industries.
Setting the stage for the June offensive, tens of thousands of golf caddies, insurance salespeople and cement-mixer drivers will go on massive walkouts beginning today, demanding the government secure three labor rights for workers in the special employment bracket.

Strikers will rotate sit-ins outside the National Assembly, calling for the legalization of a set of bills which will permit them to get national industrial accident insurance and scrap oppressive labor regulations, within the June parliamentary session.

Workers affiliated with the Korean Metal Workers Union are also gearing up for collective action, pressing management at Korea`s four automakers to participate in the industrial-level negotiations, which have been stalled since last week.

The group, representing about 143,000 workers, said there has been a rupture in negotiations as management at four automakers, including Hyundai Motor Co. and its affiliate Kia Motors Corp., refused to attend the four previous meetings.

The managements of Hyundai, Kia, Ssangyong and GM Daewoo have refused to come to the negotiation table, citing the danger of duplicated negotiation results.

The metal workers` union has been demanding the legalization of industrial-level negotiations since last year, in order to increase its bargaining power. But businesses have opposed the push saying that such a mechanism would give greater leverage to the labor side during collective bargaining.

The union plans to go on partial strikes next Monday through Friday and hold an all-member vote for a second walkout in July.

Labor unions at Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors are planning to decide whether or not to participate in the strikes by Thursday.

The two labor groups are facing fierce criticism as its leaders have been pushing to participate in the strikes, abiding by orders from its parent organization, the metal workers` union, without allowing union members to vote on the move.

Civic groups in Ulsan are planning to hold a press conference today at Ulsan City Hall to prevent the Hyundai Motor union from taking part in the walkout.

An umbrella organization of over 140 civic groups in Ulsan is planning to hold massive protest rallies should the union decide to participate in the "political strike," said Lee Doo-cheol, head of the organization.

"We cannot sit back and watch the union hold political strikes when it is threatening the national economy," said Lee.

"Amid declining public support, the union appears to be weighing the pros and cons carefully," said an unnamed official at Hyundai Motor. "The political strikes will become a burden for both labor and the management." Serious production losses are expected in the major plants of Hyundai and Kia should the two unions decide to join in the strikes.

The Hyundai Motor labor union had pledged not to go on political strikes for matters outside wage and working condition negotiations after launching a 34-day strike last year.

The prolonged strike last year - over bonuses and various political concerns - caused a 115,000-vehicle drop in production, and a 1.6 trillion won ($1.7 billion) loss in sales for the automaker, according to Hyundai Motor statistics.

A group of hospital workers is also planning to vote this week for a massive walkout next Tuesday to fend off the government-led revision of the medial law. The bill has been facing mounting opposition after the former chairman of the Korean Medical Association - the largest doctors` group in Korea - was accused of illegally lobbying several lawmakers to influence the legislation.

The Korean Health and Medical Workers Union, representing about 40,000 workers at more than 100 hospitals nationwide, is demanding the government nullify the bill and open discussion with all medical representatives.

Amid waves of labor unrest in major workplaces, the radical Korean Confederation of Trade Unions plans to go on strike July 25-29 to protest the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.

Members of the labor group plan to go on simultaneous strikes in several regions nationwide for four days, meeting up in Seoul for a joint demonstration on June 29.

Workers will go on two-hour strikes in turns June 25-27, and they will lengthen the strike to four hours on June 28 and six hours in 29, the KCTU said.

The KCTU, one of the nation`s umbrella unions, currently has about 360,000 members.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldm.com)

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