I love yellow monitors! The wildcat strike in Hyundai factory in Czech

Hyundai plant in the Czech Republic

An analysis of a wildcat work stoppage in Hyundai factory in Czech in December 2009 and its context. It was published in Tridni kniha (paper of Kolektivne proti kapitalu). It was distributed in front of the factory and posted by a Hyundai worker on a internet forum of Hyundai employees.

When the strike broke out in Hyundai on 2 December and made factory monitors yellow as a sign of production stopping, it was a slap in the face for the bosses. But not only that. The cry of “I love yellow monitors!”, which appeared on the internet, says it all. The strike reminded us that it is possible to defend ourselves collectively against overtime, factory repression, bad working conditions and shitty wages.

But as quickly as the stoppage of work began it ended. What did the workers gain by it? What were its weak points and what were its strong points? What balance of power did it constitute in the factory? In the following lines we will focus on these precise questions.

Chronology of the December Events in Hyundai

1 Dec: Metal Finish Operators request the abolition of overtime and threaten not to do it. All the leaders were deaf to this threat and the seriousness of the situation was only understood by a Korean manager, who calmed the situation down by saying that one half of the workers could go home and the other half would stay.

2 Dec: Without discussing with their colleagues, three operators stop their assembly lines at 4 p.m. (each of them stopped one while there were 7 of them all together). They captured the general feeling against regular overtime that had already been imposed since October (overtime was always practiced on the morning shift and lasted from 4 pm to 6 pm).

“Stop line” buttons were pressed and this stopped the lines Final I, Final II and Chassis, that is to say about 150 workers. This also paralysed the following and preceding lines.

About 400 workers gather in the canteen and the head of the shift comes around at last. An arrangement is made. The second hour of the overtime will be worked while both will be paid and the overtime is cancelled for the next day when negotiations will start.

3 Dec: According to information from the internet forum the morning shift workers were told they had to stay for the overtime. When the welding shop decided to go on strike, overtime was cancelled.

A strike took place in Dymos from 4 to 6 p.m. Dymos is an contracting firm belonging to Hyundai and operating in the same premises.

4 Dec:
The union1 meets the management. There is also the small group of workers who initiated the strike present at the meeting.

7 Dec: The union gives notice of a strike in Hyundai. They write the following :
“We demand -no sanctions at all for the workers who stopped production on 2 Dec 2009.
- opening real communication with the delegates of OS KOVO in order to calm the situation down and start new quality cooperation between OS KOVO and Hyundai. It is not possible to guarantee to calm the situation down without fulfilling this condition. Information provided to the delegates of workers is insufficient and does not allow us to inform the employees in the workplace.

- as far as overtime is concerned:
-to reduce overtime to a minimum after negotiating with the union
-to pay 5000 Czech crowns bonus for overtime work for 2009

-as far as annual bonus is concerned:
-If the employees fulfilled the internal regulations and did not receive the annual bonus, they must be paid the full bonus in the following salary term.
-night shifts starting 21 Dec will be moved to 20 Dec and will finish on 23 Dec
-to lower the criteria for employees assessment
-to allow the union to enter the workplace in all production departments.

If the above-mentioned conditions are fulfilled, we will support the employer concerning the overtime issue.”

12 Dec: The union distributes a leaflet about “agreement of the employees to taking part in a strike”, which should take place because of:
-disagreement with regular overtime
-disagreement with any sanction against the strike initiators
-disagreement with the change of the criteria for annual bonus
-demand for financial compensation for overtime

15 Dec: End of strike notice. Agreement between the union and the management which:
- guarantees no punishment for the strike initiators
- promises that overtime will not “be required at the previous level”.
- promises improvement in communication between management and union.

Apart from this, union and management agree on the repression of future wildcat strikes- “...in the case of a similar production stoppage without previous reconciliation negotiation, the union and the Employees committee will not oppose punishment, including criminal prosecution for possible material damage.”

Agreement mentions neither the 5000 bonus, nor the issue of assessment.

Strong points of the strike...
• Active workers (however few they were) did not wait for the union or the employees´ council do something at last. In fact both these mediating institutions, whose general task is to be a buffer between bosses and workers, were often the target of workers criticism.

The immediate reaction at the assembly in the canteen and subsequent ones in the internet forum of Hyundai workers and elsewhere show that the initiators of the strike expressed the feeling and attitudes of workers as a whole. After all, the company management did all it could to produce angry workers.

There is nothing bad in the fact that the action itself was initiated by a minority: workers struggle often needs the action of a minority to kick it off. It’s good that this minority emerged and it’s good that the rest joined in.

• The strike demonstrated that the bosses do not have the production process under their absolute control. And the awareness that we are not total hostages of the bosses is damned valuable!

But we must not underestimate the opponent - a modern factory like Hyundai is a powerful enemy of proletarians. It is itself a cop whose task is not only to speed up production for the bosses’ profit. The whole history of innovations in capitalist production is also the story of the bosses’ efforts to allow workers as little space for resistance as possible.

Once, when production was not so based on machinery it was far more dependent on worker’s handicraft, his/her willingness or unwillingness to slave, on slow work as a protest or soft touch. Machinery which is this dependent on potentially so unreliable a productive factor as labour power has been more and more eliminated... to the extent that today we are rather just appendages of machines.

Machines, robots, automation are products of our labour – but products which are turned by capitalists (for which we have to produce in exchange for a wage) against us. Machines are always on the side of their owners – and these are bosses whose aim is just to pump the highest productivity from our labour and to increase their power over us. The more modern the machinery is the greater the control the factory has over us. A belt does not wait, a belt does not take into consideration. The assembly line guards the pace of production set by the bosses more ruthlessly than the most servile foreman.

Hyundai bosses are the last ones who would miss out on this aspect of things in their factories. Even though the strike lasted for just one hour it was therefore important because it demonstrated that our submission to factory is not total. It demonstrated that workers are, even for the most modern capitalist production process, still the potentially uncertain and enigmatic variable X which it cannot overrule absolutely.

Proletarians are a production factor which is not reliable and which can take a stand.

Just because of our significance in production we can turn from the pliable labour force into the protagonist which does not let itself be pushed around. We produce the profits of the owners of capital – and our potential power consists in the fact that we can defy this and follow our own interests. And the strike or other collective disobedience at work is one of the few moments when we can feel dignity at work and not just helpless rage as the bosses pull the strings.

• One more thing was demonstrated by the strike. The sophisticated system of production and organization of work in which one operation is coordinated with another without any stocks of materials that could function as a “cushion” in case of emergency is clearly advantageous for bosses and increases their profits. But it can also become a weapon in the workers’ hands. It means that the stoppage of work in one sector will halt other sectors due to the domino effect and, in the case of subsidiary companies, will have an effect even outside the factory.

Such strikes are known as “rotating”: for instance when it is too difficult to organise the strike across the whole factory, strikes rotate one sector after another to make bosses go mad. And it generally holds that the bosses only listen to the power and strength of workers (and to losses in their pockets).

… and its limits
• During one hour of the strike workers really did, as one worker wrote on the Hyundai forum, “more than the fucking trade union and the manipulated employee’s council did in the whole year”.

However workers did not pick up on the experience of the collective refusal to be obedient cogs in the Nošovice machine. Immediately after the assembly in the canteen on 2 December they laid down their arms not to take them up again. The strike did not lead to the opening of a struggle, it expired as a protest.

• The space which was created by the strike was filled by the union once the workers became passive. “Why will you negotiate with union and the employee’s council which had nothing to do with the strike?” one worker rhetorically asked Hyundai spokesman Vaněk in the Hyundai forum. Good question, but the answer to it is not so difficult. The fact is that the struggle became a negotiation in company offices and that the protagonist of the events became the union instead of the workers. This is because workers did not manage to organize the struggle for their interests themselves.

The union thus happened to be in the foreground thanks to the dynamic of events. And they of course tried to gain as much as they could from the situation: the union let the management know that the situation would not calm down if they did not recognise the union as a respected partner. At the same time the union unambiguously told the bosses how they could be useful for today and in the future: if you take us seriously we can guarantee that we will extinguish problems when the workers cause them.

And in the final agreement unions demonstrated to the management how they could collaborate in practice. The union saw the advantages of not punishing the initiators of the December stoppage but making sure that all the potential daredevils who will perhaps have the courage to use wildcat strikes sometime in the future will be disowned by the union.

To put it another way: After the union, thanks to the workers non-union action, thanks to the wildcat stoppage of work, tried to strengthen their position within the company they agreed with the management that all future similar workers’ actions which went outside the union will be a justified target of repression. The union agreed that potential participants in non-union stoppage of work have to pay for property damage which they caused by their refusal to work.

And it equals social suicide as both union and company well know.

• Workers as individuals are in the weaker position against the bosses but their strength is in their unity. Employers, and those in Hyundai especially, know it very well and they do their best to cramp and avoid it. The differential wage scales and the complicated structure of wages are one of the tools to separate our interests as much as possible and to reduce our space for collective struggle. We must not perceive ourselves as a whole or, even worse, grasp that we have a common, collective interest whether we are operator I or operator II, whether we work on the assembly line or the offline.

But a very long time ago bosses learned to destroy workers collective power also by dividing production into different companies. But these are frontiers which we should not respect: it is not important what company uniform one wears and which premises one works in. The important thing is that workers, as those in Hyundai, Dymos, Glovis or even Kia in Žilina, are materially connected by production and that “their” companies are connected by capital. Capital and production work in the Hyundai concern as a whole – so there is no reason why the workers which capital employs should not defend themselves as a whole.

But the bosses often succeed with their trick – and they did also in Nošovice. Indeed there were debates among workers in Hyundai in December saying it would be good to approach workers from Glovis or Dymos but in the end no attempt to make contact happened and it did not happen even after a one-hour wildcat strike in Dymos, a strike which also happened to be a defeat because of its isolation.

• Sometimes one could hear workers talk about slant-eyed people etc. When the character of the boss coincides with a different nationality it can be seductive to channel workers’ anger by racist bile – but it is a blow against themselves. What is important is that a lot of workers know that Czech managers and their lackeys do not behave any better than Korean ones just because they are “ours”. The frontier runs between the boss who has power and employees, not between nationalities.

Similarly there is no point in lamenting that Hyundai management is not competent, can not carry on business properly, can not run the factory etc. The point is that with regard to sucking as much labour as possible for as little money as possible the company is highly competent. And the point that our aim is antagonistic – to get as much means of subsistence as possible (as much money as possible) for as little labour as possible (let’s not be shy, investors do not hide the fact that they are attracted to Czech by a cheap and obedient workforce). It is not our job to care about how the bosses run their company. Our job is to take care of our needs. And our needs are precisely in contradiction with the bosses´ competence in how to exploit us as much as possible.

* Lets be realists. The struggle could perhaps have been too risky or the situation simply was not mature enough. And we can’t leave aside inexperience – goddam, who in the Czech republic has the experience to lead the struggle, experience with collective class struggle – which was moreover so profaned by Stalinism? Regarding this we are still at the beginning, we as the class are still gathering first experiences. There is no point to throw in the towel, even a small and short experience can be an important basis for the future.

At the same time we have to be realistic in other regards. We have to know that Hyundai is no novice concerning class struggle. It faces a far more combative working class in Korea than it does here – and knows how to be a strong opponent who uses the hardest repression against rebellious workers.

If we want to achieve something, in Hyundai or elsewhere, it is necessary to decide if we are able to invest in struggle the same effort as we do in the work for employers and their profits.
Let’s be realists: our own struggle can not be replaced by negotiation or by references to legality, the struggle is the only thing which bosses understand. And bosses are not all-powerful. The biggest enemy of workers is their own lack of self-confidence and passivity.

No, no struggle has a result ensured in advance. One can never say that it will lead to success. It depends on the determination and intelligence of the workers, unity and objective conditions... But proletarian activity opens up a possibility that it will lead to victory.

Where did all this lead?
• The company in the end of the day did not lose. It was maybe not annoyed so much by the abolished overtime because of the removal of the scrappage incentive (a reduction of production was announced just a few weeks ago in Škoda) and the company definitely avoided payment of the 5 thousand crowns bonus for overtime which was already worked, which the workers and the union wanted.

The company certainly wanted punishment for the initiators of the strike very much because it would be hailed as a precedent and warning to future troublemakers, but it in the end abandoned this punishment and exchange it with the union for an agreement that all participants of future wildcat strikes would be punished.

And it was a good deal for the management of Hyundai. Financial penalties for harm done to production are a tremendous material threat to strikers who do not want to rely on the union. The management of Hyundai has no reason to draw attention to the December strike – therefore it acts as if nothing happened and hopes that workers quickly forget how they faced down the company.

• Trade unions in Hyundai were from their birth neglected by the management (what’s more, the bosses had at the tips of their fingers an employees council which was alienated from the workers even more than the union was) so the union had no space to degenerate into a structure which is part of the management. There is a obvious difference here between the union in Hyundai, which don’t even have a paid leader, and the union in Škoda whose leader Povšík is a member of supervisory board of Škoda Auto.

Immediately from the start of their engagement in the events after the strike (when there was no force within the workers which would lead the struggle) the union strove through the negotiations particularly to achieve an improvement of their relations with the management: to be recognised as a respectful partner by the bosses.

Things of course are not black and white: actually those workers who don’t want to be silent and let the bosses trample on them get involved in the unions. The problem is in the way which is chosen – the trade union way is one of conciliation and of agreement with the bosses. It was precisely the union logic that stood behind the fact that when it seemed that things could go forward in Hyundai the union tried to stop it. “We gave notice of a possible strike so you can see that we take things seriously. Employees must for now distance themselves from all activities similar to the Wednesday strike! It would lead to failure of negotiations!” It was the union’s message to workers who might after all take up the strike.

The union hoped that if they ensured that workers would be obedient again and would not threaten production their influence would be strengthened. “If the management take us seriously now and in the future we can guarantee pacification of the situation,” is the message the union gave to the management.

For the time being it seems that the management does not hear the appeal of the union. But workers were formally almost suspended out of the game by the union. The union ensured by the agreement with the management against wildcat strikes that workers who lead struggle outside of unions will face very difficult conditions.

• Workers hit the company but the company easily withstood the little slap. It was played for demands with the shaky “support” of the strike notice while the union was fussily exhorting workers to behave “responsibly” and submissively.

The more the good feeling that “at last we made ourselves heard” ebbed away the more the workers were embarrassed by the results of the December negotiation. They did not succeed in pulling five thousand for overtime out of the company account into workers’ pockets. Workers in Dymos did not even avoid punishment! One of the leaders of the strike who was in their probation period was sacked and others were passed over for promotion.

Despite all this, December meant something. Most important is perhaps the survival of an experience (even it was ever so short) that it is possible to oppose the power of the bosses collectively. And it will perhaps lead to the recognition of the fact that we are only tied to the bosses by exploitation and struggle. The greatest gain of every strike is politically exactly this.

The context and balance-sheet
In addition to the strike in Hyundai and Dymos there was the strike in the Grammer factory in Most on 7 January which produces accessories for cars. The workers received new salary allotments which reduced their wages, in some instances reputedly even by half (till then they received between 12 thousand and 21,800 gross wage while 50% was benefits). Workers reaction was immediate. Morning shift went on wildcat strike at 6.00 a.m. and they were reputedly supported by other workers in the afternoon.

A wildcat strike was also threatened in OKD Rekultivace company in January and there it concerned money too. The collective agreement finished in the company and before the new one came in the management announced a wage directive which reduced workers’ wages by 2-3 thousand but in some cases even by 5-6 thousand.

What have these events in Hyundai, Dymos, Grammer and OKD Rekultivace in common?

Crisis regions
All of them took place in a similar social environment – in the regions affected by long term high levels of unemployment which was just emphasized by the capitalist crisis. In January the unemployment rate in the Moravian-Silesian region was 12.8 %, that is to say there were 85,000 people without a job. In the region around the town of Most 17% were without jobs in January 2010, as against 9.8% in the Czech republic as a whole. With the exception of OKD Rekultivace, all conflicts happened in the automotive sector.

Hyundai, Kia and others: one big factory...
Hyundai, Kia and connected subsidiary companies in Czech and Slovakia are not separated worlds, they area closely linked complex. Production in Žilina does not get along without gearboxes from Nošovice, production in Nošovice does not get along without engines from Žilina, the significance of continuous flow of material from suppliers is obvious.

In fact these are not different factories but one big one. The highway between Nošovice and Žilina then is nothing but one long assembly line. And the fact that Hyundai, Kia, Mobis, Dymos, Glovis and Hysco belong to the Hyundai concern is just a appendix to their productive cohesion.

It is good to keep this in mind when bosses are trying to separate workers in “single” factories and to disintegrate them...
... one common enemy

Collectively but outside of unions!
From political point of view the most significant element of these conflicts is that workers organised them independently themselves, that is to say without unions. At least in Hyundai and Grammer workers met after the start of the stoppage of work in assemblies, in Most in front of the factory gates too. Side by side there stood Roma and non-Roma workers. This example of workers unity is especially important in this region because here, in 2008, there were two important attempts to organise pogroms led by neo-Nazis and football hooligans which unfortunately had significant support from local inhabitants.

Numbers of strikers are similar too. Four hundred went on strike in Hyundai, about one hundred in Dymos, about three hundred in Grammer.

The common aspect was also the time duration of these work stoppages: none of them lasted more than a few hours. In both factories in Nošovice (Hyundai and Dymos) the strike lasted one hour, in Most 5-6 hours.

The common aspect is also the acute reaction of the bosses. While no sackings happened in Hyundai, one happened in Dymos and in Grammer the four most active workers were told they would be sacked (plus the union leader reputedly because she was not able to dissuade workers from striking). All these cases were revoked by the management the very same day – in exchange for the promise that workers will work off the time spent on strike in extra shifts.

Another common element of Hyundai and Grammer was that the management threatened legal charges. In Nošovice the management even made an agreement with unions saying that if a wildcat strike happens in the future “offenders” will be brought to court for compensation for property damage caused by the strike. The same threat (legal charges) was used by the factory lawyer (who took a lesson from Hyundai conflict) in Grammer even during the strike itself.

Strike notice as a tool for pacification of proletarians
The events in Hyundai and OKD Rekultivace then told us many a thing about how struggles of workers are approached by unions. If we say that where an attempt at workers’ activity emerges unions are in its way, it may sound like a paradox. But it is only a seeming paradox: the strongest workers’ weapon for defence of their material interests is a struggle which harms bosses’ profits and their power in the company. But unions are the institution whose task is to keep the “peace”, to make the workers “understanding” and to make an agreement with the bosses.

Unions in Hyundai and OKD Rekultivace used as a tool to sabotage the (eventual or real) effort of workers to take the defence of their own interests into their hands... an emergency strike notice. Workers are calmed down by unions: “We take your troubles seriously. Look, we even gave notice of a strike so there is no reason to get more involved and go against the bosses! Be quiet and leave things to us, it is enough if you cross your fingers while we’re negotiating.”

It is logical. If unions want bosses to take them seriously and approach them as respectful partners then unions must offer bosses something - and what more can they offer than that they are able to discipline discontented workers? On the other hand, unions must also defend their credentials in front of workers especially when workers are determined to lead real struggles. Therefore unions sometimes can’t afford to stand aside and so they join in the struggle while trying to get it under their control... But this is not a reality in Czech at the moment.

So when the emergency strike notice was announced in Nošovice the biggest preoccupation of the union was to ensure that workers would abstain from any disobedience against the bosses. The trade union boss in OKD Rekultivace did not even try to hide the trade union’s aims and admitted publicly the role that unions play for employers: “Some employees have already decided to stop work since Monday. It’s because of that we announced the emergency strike notice. Our aim is to avoid the wildcat strikes which may occur because of the wage directive.”

In March the same union boss could take pride in the fact that the union proposed their own wage reduction plan to the management – and that they succeeded in “explaining” even to the most screwed workers (according to the union’s plan) that they should really let themselves be screwed. “Even those workers who will be affected by the biggest decline of wages agreed with our proposal.”

The current relation between proletarians and unions is in many factories characterised by the fact that both sides are weak. In companies like Hyundai unions do not represent more than a few active members and if workers decide to act collectively they do not face a powerful and living union apparatus.

But on the other side we proletarians are lacking collective capability, will and necessary experience for a sharp reply to the despotism of the bosses.

… and next?
None of these conflicts was successful either materially (winning immediate economic gains) or politically (the development of workers’ unity and development of a critique of the foundations and all aspects of capitalist society). But they still represent something. After about nine years of economic boom during which workers did not use the relatively favourable objective conditions to enforce more and to gain experiences of collective struggle these conflicts represent a definite breach of the silence.

The last cycle of open class struggle took place here in 1999/2000, when we saw a 22-day long miners’ occupation strike in the Kohinoor mine in the region around Most, struggles against non-payment of wages in ČKD Dopravní systémy in Prague, Zetor Brno and the Let Kunovice factory in Moravia. Just after this the boom of foreign direct investment began to change the composition of capital in the whole of central and eastern Europe. Many older production units died out and new factories grew, many of them connected to the automotive industry. In conjunction with this the class itself began to change, and in the class struggle field there was almost silence for the next ten years...

What we wrote about the strike in Hyundai is also valid for the other factories mentioned. The decisive question is what happened to informal groups of combative workers (radical minorities which can constitute germs of proletarian autonomy) during these conflicts. Will they develop their experience or will they into defeatism and passivity because of the confused outcomes of the conflict? Did they strengthen their positions within the factory during work stoppages or were they weakened? Did work stoppages open the eyes of workers for a broader reflection of their position within capitalist society and the necessity and possibilities of collective defiance? But also, how many such micro-conflicts “bubble away” in factories, storehouses, offices or supermarkets below the surface? And how many actually happened which we don’t know about and which weren’t covered in the media?

We do not have a crystal ball. Only the practise of the following months will answer these questions. We caught just a glimpse of workers autonomy, an independent organisation of workers without the unions, the political parties fishing with pre-election promises, and other institutions. To hope for a new, even “just” a regional cycle of struggles in workplaces is premature now. But it is certain that even the longest way begins with one step.

Kolektivně proti kapitálu (KPK) - ČR/SR
Mouvement Communiste (MC) - FR/BE

PDF version of the text in Czech here

  • 1. There is only one trade union in Hyundai it belongs to the "Odborový svaz KOVO (OS KOVO)" - "Czech Metalworkers‘ Federation" which is in turn part of "Českomoravská konfederace odborových svazů (ČMKOS)" - "Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions".