[OUTLOOK]The potential for labor peace

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[OUTLOOK]The potential for labor peace

More intense labor-management conflict has erupted this month. Molotov cocktails appeared again after a few years and the intense rallies in the streets were covered by the foreign media for the whole world to see. Is Korean society today in general as marked by uncertainty and hostility as the state of labor-management relations indicates?
Our labor-management relations are undeniably in an insecure state. Young people are having a hard time finding jobs, and the labor market and social systems are inadequate to accommodate the rapidly aging population. During the last decade, the fragmentation and dual structure of the Korean labor market has become more and more serious because of globalization and the 1997 financial crisis, among other changes. The number of irregular workers is increasing daily, while regular workers also fear losing their jobs. Such fear was the internal force that drove the trade unions to drastic struggles to push their collective demands.
The intense struggle of the labor unions heightened the tension between workers and management, leading to a tendency to avoid hiring regular workers and attacks on the unions on the part of businesses, which in turn deepened the conflict. The vicious cycle of labor-management relations led to a dwindling in investment by businesses and a decrease in the number of jobs.
Yet, none of the three parties involved in our labor-management relations ― labor, management and government ― wanted such a vicious cycle. Are our labor-management relations indeed hostile and destructive? I beg to differ.
Although demonstrations mobilizing masses of workers have become a familiar element of our labor movement, it is hard to find any instances of destructive attacks against businesses or business owners, as is often witnessed in other countries. Management has also shown a challenging spirit and sense of commitment that is second to none, and this was the force that formed the dynamics of our economy.
In this sense, despite the temporary tension and clashes our labor-management relations are going through at the moment, I believe they are not fundamentally hostile or destructive. The problem lies in the elements of instability found in our labor market, and it is up to labor, management and government to show the resolution and courage needed to carry out the task of eliminating such elements of instability, while turning our labor-management relations to a productive cycle.
First, the labor policy authorities must engage in some serious self-reflection. They should look back on the last year to see whether they have achieved anything, whether they haven’t merely been chasing belately after the news of labor-management conflicts and whether they have indeed put sufficient effort into implementing President Roh Moo-hyun’s campaign promises of more jobs, protection of irregular workers, expansion of basic labor rights and elimination of illegal labor practices. The consistent attitude of policy authorities is what underlies the predictability of labor-management relations and thus encourages the trust of businesses and unions.
Management should also ask itself whether it hasn’t unjustly attacked and denied the labor unions, and whether it hasn’t been considering the role of workers merely in terms of production costs. We must face the fact that illegal labor practices have yet to disappear and that these are what aggravate the hostile attitude of the labor unions.
Ignoring the fundamental causes behind the unsolved labor-management tension would only structuralize inefficient, and thus high-cost, labor-management relations.
But what must be emphasized most here is the role of the workers. The labor unions must look back and see whether they haven’t being dumping the blame for the vicious cycle on the government and businesses, and finding false comfort in reckless expressions of rage. The reappearance of violent rallies with Molotov cocktails in particular is of absolutely no help in solving the labor-management problem and in the future development of labor-management relations.
We also need to examine the present structure of the labor unions, where labor-management relations are strictly divided according to different businesses and where conflicts between labor and management in a business often expand into extreme confrontations because they are unable to find a better approach.
Labor unions must also look to see if there aren’t more urgent demands from the majority of laborers who are still unorganized into unions and from the unemployed. Without the support of the non-union workers and the unemployed, the labor movement will be unable to stand, and without the sympathy and encouragement of the public, the labor movement will be unable to move forward.
I have confidence that our labor-management relations will overcome their present difficulties and reach a state where the joint efforts of labor, business and government will create more jobs, enhance equity in the workplace and improve the lot of the average worker. It is my conviction that our labor-management relations have the potential and capability to contribute to the integration and unity of our society.
Now is the time for labor, management and government to show their resolution and courage to develop such potential.

* The writer is a former vice-chairman of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Yeong-dae
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