[EDITORIALS]Labor's darkening issues

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[EDITORIALS]Labor's darkening issues

The Korean Tripartite Commission of Labor, Management and Government marked its fourth anniversary Tuesday. Launched as a social pact between management and labor at the height of the Asian economic crisis that pushed the nation to the verge of default, the commission has helped narrow differences between employers and employees over a number of labor issues, including legalizing teachers' unions and shortening the standard number of working hours per week. Indeed, the commission took the credit for reducing the number of labor disputes and opening a new model for cooperative labor-management relationships.

But that did not last for more than a couple of years. As the economic crisis seemed to be abating, participants in the panel continued unproductive arguments, putting the commission under fire for not being able to solve labor issues. Some critics now go so far as to argue that the organization should be dismantled. Unless labor and management embrace a new culture of compromise and concession, the rhetorical description of the tripartite commission as Asia's first system for introducing social consensus is not good enough to disentangle complicated labor issues.

Labor and management face a series of major challenges this year, including the structural reform of the public sector and the planned introduction of a five-day workweek, not to mention issues at individual workplaces. In fact, many people are pessimistic about how things might turn out. A recent survey by the Korea Employers Federation of personnel and labor officials showed that more than 70 percent of those polled believed the labor-management relationship would be more unstable this year than in 2001.

According to our past experiences, labor disputes will likely intensify when regional and presidential elections are scheduled to be held. Already, the nation's two major umbrella unions - the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions - have warned of political struggles. Fueled by growing voices of interest groups, militant labor movements are likely to occur.

The government should assume the primary responsibility for the sluggish pace of restructuring, which provides the biggest stumbling block to the economy. But at the center of the problem are labor unions. Kang Bong-kyun, a former finance minister and the current head of the state-funded Korea Development Institution, made a cogent remark recently when he said during a speech that labor's resistance to restructuring is "the biggest reason for the delay of the restructuring process."

Amid the social and economic upheaval since the financial crisis, the labor environment has undergone drastic changes. But unions have tilted toward maintaining the status quo, rather than accepting changes. There is no denying that such an attitude has produced negative effects.

Labor-labor conflicts at many local companies and the rising aristocratic class among some union officials have even led members to turn their backs on their unions. In addition, frequent strikes at large corporations have often put subcontractors in trouble, causing friction between big-business unions and the small guys. The unions' selfishness, indeed, is undermining their solidarity. That makes a convincing case why unions themselves must change their practices. If the Korean economy is to hold on to its achievements and to regain a healthy labor-management partnership, workers, their employers and the government must go back to their own roles.

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