South Korean Labor Protest Grows

SEOUL -- A strike call rang out to more than a million South Korean workers Friday as nurses walked off hospital wards, shipyards were idled and militant unionists raised clenched fists on a Seoul plaza.


Anxious residents of Seoul braced for transport chaos on Saturday as subway drivers voted to join the stoppages. More than 4 million passengers a day are carried through the capital's main subway arteries.


The biggest shock was a decision by the normally docile Federation of Korean Trade Unions to confront the government over a tough new labor law.


It announced that a strike planned for just 24 hours starting at noon Friday would be extended until the end of the year -- and possibly beyond.


That decision threatens to bring out around 1.5 million workers. On Thursday the more militant Korea Confederation of Trade Unions instructed its 500,000 members to down tools.


While union members account for about 20 percent of the workforce, they command the heights of the economy, including key export industries. Production of cars and ships -- two big foreign exchange earners -- has virtually halted.


Leather-clad motorcyclists roared through the southeast city of Ulsan, home of the mighty Hyundai Group that boasts it makes everything from computer chips to ships, in a "honking protest" against the bill.


Around 1,500 bikers, all of them disgruntled Hyundai employees, paraded around the streets trailing banners and sounding their horns.


Meanwhile, 15,000 workers donned red headbands and headed for a strip of concrete the size of an airport runway that runs through Seoul's financial center. Eyed warily by riot police they yelled anti-government slogans and punched the air with their fists.


Some 10,000 hospital workers at 14 leading facilities stopped work, sending patients scurrying from one clinic to another. More hospitals were expected to be paralyzed on Saturday.


The government and employers used soothing words to try to calm angry workers. The country's largest employers group insisted members would only make use of a clause in the new legislation allowing layoffs in an emergency.


Finance Minister Han Seung-soo argued that the new law protected jobs in the long term by making South Korea's economy more flexible, and therefore more competitive. The law also allows companies to replace strikers.


Han adopted a carrot-and-stick approach, threatening unspecified punishment against strikes that he called illegal while promising a better life for workers through such means as vocational training.


Even taxi drivers indicated they would join in the snowballing strikes on Monday. Key utilities -- including gas, electricity and phones -- appeared safe for the moment. And operators of the Seoul metro said replacement drivers would keep a skeleton service running.


"If the strikes are extended into the new year that will basically mean an indefinite strike," said Korea Federation chairman Park In-sang.


A vote would be taken Monday on whether to extend the industrial action -- some of the worst labor strife since the late 1980s.


Bundled in blankets against the cold, opposition deputies continued occupying the National Assembly in protest at the government's tactics in ramming through the labor law and another controversial law boosting the powers of the once-notorious domestic spy agency.