Winter With Some Content

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Winter With Some Content

Sighs of great relief will greet the news that the Korea Electric Power Corporation and its labor union have managed to avert a catastrophe by reaching agreement at the last moment.

Most praiseworthy of all was the labor union''s decision to call off the planned strike, already twice deferred, and practically to accept the principle of privatization. While the immediate effect of its decision is likely to be the accelerated privatization of KEPCO, in more general terms the union''s action will probably serve as a model for the resolution of future labor disputes. Of particular note is the way each party respected the other and committed itself to a policy of conversation and negotiation. If that model is widely emulated, it will prove of great benefit in helping the national economy overcome current difficulties.

The planned strike at the utility attracted an extraordinary degree of attention because it was expected to precede a series of serious conflicts, beginning with a joint demonstration by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions on Tuesday and following up with industrial hostilities at Asiana Airline and the Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation on ensuing days.

Now that the KEPCO deal has shown others the way to break through an impasse, general fears that we are in for a winter of discontent in labor warfare are abating. We hope that labor unions in the private sector contemplating their struggle against the government''s restructuring drive will join those in the public sector in learning this important lesson from KEPCO: labor conflicts can be resolved through mutual assistance instead of mutual destruction. We hope also that the president and the government use this episode to foster a calmer and more favorable atmosphere in labor relations, which have recently been an area of grave concern for the national economy.

Despite such an upbeat assessment of the situation, we are worried about the unremitting speculation that secret agreements lie behind the resolution at the power company. Given that their collective agreement is yet to be ratified, both parties should do their best to dispel such speculation by clarifying their positions. Similar speculation was rife when the Korea Federation of Financial Labor Unions called off its strike last July. The persistence of such rumors is due to the general lack of credibility in the way public enterprise responds to the need for restructuring, as well as the lack of transparency in the way the government deals with them.

The public sector has been identified as the tardiest one when it comes to reform. At times the government has claimed certain scalps as instances of successful reform, only for it to emerge later that underlying the process were scams and secret agreements to appease the unions. The Korea Tobacco and Ginseng Corporation laid off 500 workers, but within a year had either rehired them or employed their sons and daughters. Korea Telecom laid off 12,000 workers but, believe it or not, its personnel expenses skyrocketed by 22 per cent.

We are not asking public enterprises to make a disproportionate sacrifice. Private businesses have come through intense restructuring and will soon face more of the same. In such circumstances, no one can hope to escape the cutting blade of restructuring unscathed.

We urge the government to lose no time in dispelling rumors of secret agreements in the resolution of public-sector labor disputes, and to pursue its restructuring drive with renewed zeal.
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