ULSAN, South Korea, Nov 22, 2010 (AsiaPulse via COMTEX) —

A sit-in strike by temporary workers of Hyundai Motor (KSE:005380), the nation’s largest automaker, was gaining force as an umbrella union group with nearly 140,000 members pushed Monday for a general strike to join the protest in demanding formal employee status for the workers.

About 550 workers have taken over the automaker’s main assembly line in Ulsan, 414 kilometers southeast of Seoul, since Nov. 15, clashing with riot police and partially crippling the factory’s production. On Saturday, one worker tried to set himself on fire during a rally.

The Korea Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU), the country’s largest industrial union in the automobile, steel, machinery and shipping sectors, held a representative meeting Monday afternoon in Ulsan to decide whether to hold a vote for a sympathy strike.

To be able to launch a general strike, the majority of the KMWU workers must vote in favor.

“If the prolonged strike makes it impossible to operate manufacturing lines normally, the company has no option but to shorten the operation and close the factory,” Hyundai Motor’s Vice President Kang Ho-don said in a letter to employees.

With the strike gaining momentum, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office vowed to sternly act against the extended walkout.

“The strike by irregular workers of Ulsan factories is illegal,” Lee Young-nam, senior prosecutor in charge of public safety, said, expressing concern that the labor dispute could grow into a full-blown and long-lasting one if the temporary workers form an alliance with other labor organizations.

He added that his office is currently preparing criminal proceedings to hold protesters responsible for the damage claimed by the company.

Hyundai Motor had filed a suit last week against 27 workers who led the walkout, seeking 3 billion won (US$2.6 million) for financial damage. According to the company, the strike has caused 90.3 billion won in production losses as of Sunday.

“If the Korea Metal Workers’ Union joins the strike, prosecutors will consider a response at a national level accordingly,” Lee said.

The dispute began when the irregular workers, hired by a Hyundai Motor subcontractor, urged the automaker to abide by a Supreme Court ruling in July that contract employees who have worked for more than two years should be considered permanent workers. The case was remanded to the high court for further review.

The union of Hyundai Motor’s formal employees remains undecided whether to join the irregular workers’ move, according to union officials.

While the union of full-time workers at Hyundai Motor had gone on strike almost every year since its establishment in 1987, in 2009, it had a strike-free year after union leaders promised to cooperate to ride out a global financial crisis. The union also agreed to a wage deal in July this year, marking its second year without a strike.

Hyundai Motor and its affiliate Kia Motors control more than 70 per cent of the domestic auto market.

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