[OUTLOOK]Walkouts No Way to Start the Future

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[OUTLOOK]Walkouts No Way to Start the Future

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions on Tuesday went on general strike.

The confederation is demanding that the government: Enact laws abolishing discrimination against temporary workers and give temporary workers permanent posts, introduce a five-day work week as quickly as possible and stop intervening in labor and management talks at private companies. There was airport chaos as the workers at Korean Air and Asiana Airlines joined the strike.

Although the domestic economy has shown signs of a slight recovery recently, the prospects for a full revival are dim, with the U.S. economy, which has led world growth over recent years, still in a slowdown.

Though Korea has undergone years of hardship to revive its economy, foreign investors do not appear to think highly of the painstaking efforts the nation has made to restructure.

The government believes that completing reforms of the finance, labor, corporate and public sectors to enhance the competitiveness of the economy is a shortcut to overcoming Korea's economic woes. But labor sees it differently.

Since government efforts are concentrated on increasing the flexibility of the labor market and making corporate capital more liquid, the labor sector perceives restructuring as powered by globalization led by international capital.

Workers think restructuring demands one-sided sacrifice by labor. This split in opinion between labor and government is the backdrop of the general strike.

Korea cannot succumb to the demands of labor unions to reject globalization. Although it cannot be denied that the nation's social welfare safety net is insufficient compared with other advanced nations. Korean restructuring, which takes U.S. restructuring results as a benchmark, may result in undesirable side effects, such as a growing number of temporary workers. But Korea, a small nation in a corner of East Asia, is not in the position to reject the international trend of globalization under neo-liberalism.

The trend of borderless globalization has been initiated by the United States since the demise of the socialist block and has become a tide of the time that has to be accepted whether we like it or not.

In the past, Korean conglomerates acquired their global competitiveness through preferential treatment and protection of the domestic market. The Korean economy was centered around the chaebol. This chaebol-oriented economy allowed the labor movement to gain momentum quickly during the democratization period. And the unions could exercise stronger power than the rate of union participation, which is still at a very low level.

But as the large chaebol ran into trouble in the 1990s, proving that merely being big did not assure survival, the workers realized that they wouldn't survive either unless the companies that employed them made it through the hard times. This meant workers had to accept that to keep their jobs they would have to endure some disadvantages.

The fact that the labor unions of large companies did not participate in the general strike illustrates they learned their lesson.

Only workers in corporations that are more distant from brutal market principles or are protected by the government from international competition - such as domestic airline companies, public corporations and hospitals - participated in the strike.

All democratic nations guarantee workers certain rights. These rights protect laborers who became economically subordinated to the owners of capital after the industrial revolution. The right to conduct collective action is the most important right of workers and their most potent weapon. But all nations regulate strikes. Labor unions must follow legal procedures to go on strike, as job action has a huge impact on many sectors of society.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has slammed government intervention in its right to take collective action, but seems to have failed to notice that it is ignoring such legal processes as turning to the National Labor Relations Commission for arbitration. Foreign corporations complain that the relationship between labor and management in Korea is irrational and hostile. Overseas firms understand that they have to accept labor unions in view of Korea's current stage of economic development, but they highlight irrational unions as the greatest difficulty they face.

Ignoring legitimate procedures to strike has an adverse effect on Korea's national image at a time when it is crystal clear that increasing exports and attracting foreign capital is the only way the Korean economy will be revived.

Labor should have avoided the strike and agreed to go to the negotiating table. As the 2 million Koreans currently out of work very well know, having a temporary job is better than having no job at all.

Labor, management and the government should reach an agreement instead of insisting on increasing numbers of permanent workers, which burdens the economy.


The writer is a professor of economics at Hansung University.

by Park Young-bum

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