SEOUL, AUG. 22 -- The corporate offices of Cheil Bus Co. are in a listing bus that was taken off its wheels and furnished with a few metal desks and two fans. Inside, several drivers talked about the three-hour strike that brought them an 11 percent wage hike as well as the promise of free meals and cigarettes.
"I believe it's not enough," said Park Kyung Hwan, 40, who will take home about $450 per month. "But we know we can't get everything at one time . . . . We have to think about the management side, too."
Park's attitude is typical of that of many Korean workers, often respectful of their employers and reluctant to engage in public conflict. Although violent clashes in the past few weeks have gotten much attention, most disputes have been settled peaceably after a few days or less.
But the very number of disputes -- more than 1,400 in two months compared to fewer than 300 all last year -- indicates that labor relations in this rapidly industrializing country may have changed irrevocably after years of government suppression.
"Frankly speaking, we couldn't even think of this kind of action before June 29," Park, the bus driver, said, recalling the day that ruling party chairman Roh Tae Woo stunned the nation by endorsing free elections and other reforms. "The bus workers now are moving toward the pattern of advanced countries," Park said. "That's why we are struggling this way."
But in the slightly more elegant offices of the Sobu Transport Co., where drivers had returned to work after a seven-hour strike, executive director Kim Han Ook worried about the implications of such a change. He mentioned large companies where workers have burned their bosses in effigy.
"I hate to see that," Kim said. "The Korean virtue, respect for elders, it's draining away, and I hate to see it."
But Kim acknowledged that he and other Sobu executives had persuaded drivers to return to work, in part, by warning them that they would be "criticized by the citizens."
A desk clerk on strike at the Lotte Hotel, H.A. Kim, showed the same sensitivity to public response. Like many strikers, Lotte workers are making big demands -- for a 50 percent raise -- with moderate rhetoric.
"We didn't want to go to the lobby and disturb the guests," H.A. Kim said. "We feel embarrassed. . . . But the people have a lot of feelings bottled up inside, and the company won't listen to us."
Kim of the Sobu bus company said he believes that his firm's labor trouble is over for now, but he fears for the future.
"Since democracy has been announced, there's an atmosphere of all kinds of freedom at once," he said. "Many people think that if they miss this chance, they may never have another . . . . They seem to believe this is an opportunity from heaven."