Samsung: Thus Family Company Myth Crumbles

The first strike in the history of the South Korean electronics giant has been announced

Lee Byung-chul

South Korean union leaders have been trying for weeks to reach a satisfactory agreement on wage increases with Samsung’s top management, but without success. For weeks, unionists have been trying to assuage workers’ growing discontent, but now the time has come to say enough is enough: the national Samsung Electronics union, which represents more than 20% of all employees at the South Korean tech giant, has announced a one-day strike. It will be a very specific strike: union leaders have asked all members to “demand a paid day off for Friday, June 7.”

The union, which represents the fundamental interests of Samsung’s 28,000 employees, is demanding a 6.5% wage increase and a bonus tied to the company’s profits, which is at a moment of great growth in the sector, in which Samsung operates.

This is the first time in the history of the company, founded in 1969, that such a large segment of workers haw protested in such a coordinated and united manner. The protest threatens to seriously disrupt the entire Samsung Group, the world’s largest chip maker. Manufacturer of memory, smartphones, televisions, and liquid crystal displays.

Recently, Samsung, which over the years has always tried to portray itself as a “family company” in the eyes of South Korean and international public opinion, has instead been accused of using “cruel and inhumane” methods to avoid unionizing its employees. As the South Korean press recalled, “the group’s founder, Lee Byung-chul, who died in 1987, was adamantly opposed to collective bargaining.”

For this reason, Samsung didn’t have a union until 2019. Just five years ago, a group of activists took advantage of the arrival of a leftist government in Seoul. Then-President Moon Jae-in was a lawyer before entering politics and often defended labor union rights during his career. Another factor that finally allowed Samsung workers to form their own union was a corruption trial involving then-Samsung vice president and grandson of founder Lee Jae-yong.

If talks stall again after June 7, the union has threatened to call a broader strike soon. “We don’t want to tolerate any more harassment of labor unions. We are calling this strike due to the company’s negligent treatment of its workers,” the union wrote in a press release.

Kim Dae-jong, an economics professor at Sejong University, told AFP news agency: “Samsung as a whole will definitely be greatly affected by the strike by 20% of its employees, especially at a time when the semiconductor industry is undergoing an unprecedented evolution.” According to Kim Dae-jong, “unlike Hyundai Motor, which has to hold almost one strike a year, it will be difficult for Samsung management to keep this situation under control, because it has never had to do so before.”