[EDITORIALS]President as labor mediatorThe recent revelation that President-elect Roh Moo-hyun met leaders of Chohung Bank's union and an association of financial industry unions on Jan. 14 has created a controversy. Mr. Roh's transition team explained that the president-elect wanted to listen to their views of the government's plan to sell the commercial bank.
Mr. Roh has often vowed to arbitrate labor disputes in person. He and union leaders sometimes got together before he was elected. In that respect, the latest meeting can be seen as his attempt to solve a key economic issue peacefully. But it is not appropriate for an incoming president to intervene directly in a labor dispute, because it leaves no room for labor-management negotiations. If direct intervention sets a precedent, a boomerang effect could force the president to enter each and every future labor dispute.
The incoming president's spokesman says that the purpose of the meeting was to "settle the issue peacefully" without a strike. The union leaders claim that Chohung may have a chance to seek independent survival, depending on a due-diligence study by a neutral agency, and that was why the bank's union decided to postpone a planned strike. We are not sure which explanation is true, but it is clear that the union is trying to take advantage of Mr. Roh's comments during the meeting.
Direct involvement by the country's leader can turn a labor dispute into a political issue. When leading labor organizations staged a general strike in 2001, President Kim Dae-jung and religious leaders held behind-the-scene negotiations with union leaders. The talks collapsed, causing a round of controversy about who was responsible for the failure to reach a pact. It was a typical political attempt to solve a labor issue; the government's regular negotiation channel was bypassed in the process. Such frequent interventions by politicians have undermined the labor-management relationship based on law and principles. The president-elect has long been close to the labor community and may want to hear the voices of workers. But whatever he does as the new president is an act of state. He should not act rashly.