GM plant clos­ing is ‘death sen­tence,’ union says

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - REPORT ON BUSINESS - HEEKYONG YANG GUN­SAN JU-MIN PARK SEOUL

Auto maker’s shut­ter­ing of a South-Korean fa­cil­ity is met with protests, strike talk

Gen­eral Mo­tors Co.’s work­ers at a South Korean plant staged a protest on Wed­nes­day against its planned clos­ing, call­ing the move by the U.S. auto maker a “death sen­tence” and threat­en­ing a strike.

In the city of Gun­san, where the fac­tory with 2,000 work­ers is lo­cated, shut­tered store fronts and empty streets near the plant are a stark re­minder of the de­press­ing im­pact on the ru­ral town.

The fac­tory had al­ready been run­ning at about 20 per cent of ca­pac­ity over the past three years even be­fore the U.S. car maker an­nounced the clos­ing.

“Gun­san city worked re­ally hard to res­cue GM, buy­ing GM cars pro­duced from the fac­tory. The whole town is now in panic,” Park Chung-hi, chair­woman of the Gun­san city coun­cil, told Reuters.

Ms. Park, who also has a GM car, said one out of five in Gun­san, in­clud­ing fam­ily mem­bers of work­ers at GM’s part sup­pli­ers, re­lies on the U.S. car maker’s op­er­a­tion there. GM’s South Korean unit launched a vol­un­tary re­dun­dancy scheme for its 16,000 work­ers in the Asian coun­try after an­nounc­ing on Tues­day it will shut­ter the plant in Gun­san by May and de­cide within weeks on the fate of the re­main­ing three plants in the coun­try.

Union­ized work­ers at the Gun- san plant wore red head­bands say­ing “Sol­i­dar­ity, Fight,” and held leaflets de­mand­ing the with­drawal of the clos­ing plan. Some had shaved their heads.

“Let’s pro­tect our right to live on our own,” Kim Jae-hong, the leader of the work­ers’ union at the Gun­san branch, said amid tears.

GM’s planned re­vamp of its loss-mak­ing South Korea op­er­a­tions is the lat­est in a se­ries of steps by the auto maker to put prof­itabil­ity and in­no­va­tion ahead of sales and vol­ume. Since 2015, GM has ex­ited un­prof­itable mar­kets in­clud­ing Europe, Aus­tralia, South Africa and Rus­sia.

It is of­fer­ing South Korean work­ers three times their an­nual base salary, money for col­lege tu­ition and more than US$9,000 to­ward a new car as part of a re­dun­dancy pack­age.

A spokesman of GM Korea, the lo­cal unit, said the com­pany would con­tinue dis­cus­sions with the union and seek their un­der­stand­ing over the clos­ing plan.

But work­ers were far from pla­cated. The union will es­tab­lish a de­tailed plan in protest against the shut­down that may in­clude a strike and hold­ing of a sit-in rally at the head­quar­ters of GM Korea, ac­cord­ing to the union’s Gun­san branch.

“We can’t ac­cept this. The com­pany in­formed us about the clo­sure plan, not ask­ing for our opin­ion. It was al­ready the end of the dis­cus­sions,” Dang Sung-geun, a se­nior of­fi­cial at the union of GM Korea, told Reuters by tele­phone.

“This is like a death sen­tence no­tice be­fore the Lu­nar New Year hol­i­days.”

Mr. Dang said about 1,200 union­ized work­ers from GM Korea joined the protest at the Gun­san fac­tory, a day be­fore the Asian coun­try be­gins Lu­nar New Year hol­i­days.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on Tues­day used GM’s de­ci­sion to close the plant to launch fresh crit­i­cism of the U.S.-South Korea trade agree­ment.

Mr. Trump re­cently ap­proved tar­iffs on South Korean wash­ing ma­chines, while South Korea has vowed to take coun­ter­mea­sures through the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WTO).

South Korea’s Trade Min­istry said it will take a dis­pute against the United States to the WTO, in­volv­ing the im­po­si­tion of high anti-dump­ing du­ties on South Korean steel and trans­form­ers.

GM ex­ec­u­tives have com­plained about South Korea’s rel­a­tively high wages and its strike­prone labour union. But Mr. Dang of GM Korea’s union blamed the com­pany for re­duc­ing out­put, say­ing lower wages were not ac­cept­able.

The auto maker’s re­struc­tur­ing plan places South Korean Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in in an un­com­fort­able spot, as he has pledged more new jobs and job se­cu­rity.

CHUNG KYUNG-JAE/AP

GM work­ers stage a protest on Wed­nes­day against the com­pany’s plan to close a plant in Gun­san, South Korea.

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