[VIEWPOINT]Who Benefits From Unions' Demands?

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[VIEWPOINT]Who Benefits From Unions' Demands?

Some say that the organizers of the general strike that began on June 12 made a big mistake when they chose the hour of their protest. The prolonged drought was already crippling farmers and companies. The country was in no mood for additional blows, they say. The workers struck at a time when sympathy was scarcest on the ground.

If so, now that the rains have finally come, will sympathy for strikers return? No. What disabled the general strike was not timing but the lack of reason and logic behind the Korean Confed-eration of Trade Unions' demands. Let's look over some of the slogans that the union confederation used to justify the general strike:

- "Abolish this corporate restructuring that focuses on worker layoffs!"

- "End discrimination be-tween permanent workers and temporary workers!"

- "Oppose reform laws!"

- "Current administration, step down!"

- "Oppose the United States' national missile defense system!"

The best way to approach these demands analytically is to ask "cui bono?" - Latin for "to whose benefit?" The parties directly or indirectly concerned with the strike are corporate shareholders, corporate executives, customers, workers, the unemployed and the general public. Let's look at which of these groups would benefit from the realization of the unions' demands listed above.

Who on earth would gain from opposition to the United States' proposed national missile defense system? The United States is concerned about the emergence of rogue states or militant groups which may have got hold of missiles after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Korea, which is located so close to one of the rogue states in question, is now numb to the threat posed by our next-door neighbor. The union is just jumping on the bandwagon of opposition to this plan.

What is the purpose of calling for the retirement of the current administration? In 18 months' time, people can choose the next president for themselves and thus decide which direction the government should take. This slogan may simply be a sideswipe at the government. But I don't think that the increasing tendency of the unions to take complex political issues as strike slogans in any way benefits the common people.

What about the unions' opposition to reform legislation and corporate restructuring? Who would benefit from this? The current government and corporations have undertaken various painful reform and restructuring programs to improve national competitiveness. Unions say that over the last three years the workers have had to bear the sacrifice of restructuring.

But it hasn't just been the workers. Business entrepreneurs are also suffering. And anyway, not all workers are suffering. Some have been sheltered from the harsh wind of restructuring. Of particular note in this category are some of the very unions key to the general strike, such as the metal workers' union. The unions' cry to abolish discrimination between the permanent and temporary workers seems to me to be a cunning way to expand union recruits and increase their strike power. The demand to abolish the resort to layoffs in corporate restructuring is the only somewhat persuasive slogan. I do agree that corporations should be very selective in their layoffs, so they may keep their talented employees.

Now, let's see what ulterior motive could have lain behind the strike itself on the part of the unions. Strikes in this country usually end up involving three parties: In addition to labor and management, the government often intervenes in disputes.

The upshot of government intervention is usually strong pressure on management, which often results in huge management concessions. The unions know this. They also know that if they harp on long enough at government, they will usually get something in return.

To improve the flexibility of the labor market, first of all the government must insist that legal principles be adhered to. Strikes must remain within legal boundaries.

The media also have a duty. The broadcasters and newspapers that got so heated up reporting the story of the Daewoo workers injured by police while on strike are now calmly reporting that the chief of a police station sustained just as serious injuries suppressing the general strike.

No foreign investors wish to enter a country where illegal, violent and disorderly strikes are common. In the era of globalization as national boundaries dissolve, domestic companies' activities are also not limited to this country.


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The writer is a professor of economics at Sogang University.

by Kim Pyung-joo

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