[INSIGHT]Strikes Support Need for Clear Thinking

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[INSIGHT]Strikes Support Need for Clear Thinking

The journey back home from work was a nightmare Tuesday. I was prepared for the general strike launched by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, but frustrated when cars did not budge from Namdaemun where my office is located. I looked into different alternatives, but the result was the same. In the end, I spent one hour getting to Seoul station, a distance that usually takes two to three minutes. Traffic was paralyzed because some of the demonstrators had occupied roads near Namyeong-dong. Having experienced a similar incident on June 2, the empathy I felt for the labor unions completely dissipated.

The suffering incurred by the public because of rising labor aggression in the streets are multiple. The total number of demonstrations and rallies nationwide from January till May amounted to 516 (and that's only those reported to the police), which is 4.4. times that of the previous year. One hundred and fifty-four rallies and demonstrations were held in Seoul from January until April. This means that more than one demonstration was held every day. Rallies usually started from Seoul station, Myeong-dong and Jongno area and eventually took over the streets, paralyzing the traffic in the city each time. Further, as airlines and hospitals joined in the general strike that started Tuesday, the inconvenience and rage felt by the public exacerbates.

The labor unions claim, "We can no longer endure the one-sided sacrifices of workers." They emphasize, "This is the only way we can manifest our will." Of course, the desperation felt by those laid off overnight because of bankruptcy and policy failures cannot possibly be described. However, the loss incurred from the strikes is too large. Besides the tangible losses from flight cancellation, there are many other intangible damages, such as a fall in Korea's credit rating. The umbrella labor organization may be smiling for having succeeded at pressuring management. But why should the public be threatened of their lives and their feet fettered? Such strikes are akin to pushing away foreign investors. If domestic firms are thinking of moving abroad, what must foreign companies think? There must be investment for companies to revive and for jobs to be created and social welfare provided. But since the strikes are self-inflicting, I do not understand who they are supposed to help.

It has been 14 years since labor-management strife took full swing with the June 29 democratization declaration in 1987. We have since undergone many hardships such as the financial crisis in 1997, but the discord between the two sides have not improved and have instead grown so much that they can no longer be left alone. Whether or not the current strike is justifiable, we should examine the reality of labor relations and seek a new paradigm.

Presently, the relations between labor, management and government is in a word, chaotic. Each is not aware of what its role is and what it "should" or "should not" do. The primary responsibility falls on the government and its lack of principles. Labor unions that take the economy as hostage to show off their strength and oppose corporate reform, are also too overt. The management is responsible for having nurtured distrust by not managing its affairs openly.

The world's economy is moving at a fast pace. Besides labor issues, we have plenty of other issues to tackle. We are in too desperate a situation to waste our energy over discord. There is no guarantee that at this rate, we would not face another crisis.

First, workers should change their thinking. Even if the economy recovers thanks to industrial restructuring, we cannot expect mass employment as before. In order for companies to survive, trimming the workforce and reorganizing are indispensable. The labor unions should accept these changes and find solutions within these trends. Companies should regain the trust of its workers by managing their businesses openly and by building mechanisms for labor- management reconciliation by adopting a layoff warning system and expanding investment in employee education. The government and the business community must work together to train those who lose jobs and expand the social safety network. What is most urgent is that the government must change. The present government has only worked on assuaging the labor unions. It has employed double standards by instructing businesses "to restructure but not reduce the workforce" in consideration of workers. The government has kept a blind eye to illegal actions committed by the unions. This cannot continue. Be it the managers or the workers, illegal action must be strictly punished under the law and the government should show a resolute will "not to allow illegal action."

Strife between labor and management and between labor and government is not unique to Korea. Great Britain was able to cure its labor illness because Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister, did not hesitate to resort to force and abided by principles instead of being swayed by popularity. This is why the government's clear position is more urgently demanded.


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The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Kim Wang-ky

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