Warning to U.S. plants: Consider Korean unrest

UPDATED: 8/29/12 10:32 pm ET - includes news of settlement

Autoworkers in South Korea have been striking on and off this summer for various reasons, and there were threats of an industry shutdown there.

Hyundai, in particular, could have suffered for it, but the company has reached a tentative settlement with the union, according to reports overnight from Seoul.

Labor unrest in Korea is a different animal than U.S. managers are used to. And from the relatively calm viewpoint of the U.S. auto industry, things can look nastier than they really are. But, interesting to note, the root cause of the Korean workers' current unhappiness is a practice that American automakers are rushing headlong to adopt at their U.S. auto plants.

The Korean workers rebelled against night work. They're tired of working late hours. They want their work days shortened to avoid the social disruptions of late-night factory life.

Meanwhile, automakers across the U.S. industry are changing their plants over to three-shift worker models. American manufacturers, with the 2009 market crash still vivid in their memories, want to maximize their existing plants to turn out more vehicles to keep up with a growing retail market without investing in new factory lines.

Auto plants are adding shifts from Detroit to Mississippi. With the best and most sensible of intentions, they want to run their factories as close as possible to round-the-clock, with maintenance engineering crews using short periods at night to keep the tooling humming nicely.

Whether it is South Korea or South Carolina, workers are usually grateful to have a good paying auto plant job. But the graveyard shift has always been a challenge, for workers and employers. GM's Saturn subsidiary had its hands full for years trying to make one work smoothly there in the 1990s -- and that was a work environment predicated on keeping workers content. If they don't like late hours in Korea, we can be sure workers won't particularly like it any better in Michigan or Ohio or Kentucky.

Three-crew work models are going to be demanding systems. How automakers manage the new routine could be the management challenge of this decade.

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