[NOTEBOOK]Two friends, big problems

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[NOTEBOOK]Two friends, big problems

In the spring of 2001, the country was swept by “Chingu” fever. This popular Korean movie, called “Friends” in English, touched the hearts of a public that wanted to recall the precious memories of their old friendships while living in these hard times.
Three years after “Chingu” swept the country like a forest fire, a friendship has again become the center of attention in the labor sector. It is the friendship between Kim Dae-hwan, the new labor minister, and Lee Soo-ho, the president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. Mr. Kim and Mr. Lee attended Gyeseong High School in Daegu together and were close friends in school. The two friends with close-shaven heads, as captured in a picture in their graduation album, look indeed quite similar to the characters in “Chingu.”
When the news came out that one friend had become the labor minister and the other had become a union president, the bulletin board on the Web site of their Gyeseong High School graduating class was filled with congratulations and well-meaning requests.
The fellow graduates of Gyeseong High School are not the only people who are wishing the new labor minister and the union president well. Many people are hoping that the tone of the conversation between the labor unions and the government will soften a little.
Some even dare to hope that the culture of labor-management relations, which has been filled with strife and contention so far, will change dramatically. The personal friendship between Mr. Kim and Mr. Lee might not be enough to solve the complicated problems of the labor sector, but it could lay a foundation to solutions through dialogue.
Kim Dae-hwan, the labor minister, is a scholar who has shown pro-labor tendencies. Mr. Lee, when he accepted the presidency of Korea’s second-largest umbrella union, vowed that he would seek practical solutions rather than engage in struggle. Thus, it seemed that the two friends could have something going through cooperation.
Of course, as the two friends represent two different parties often in conflict with each other, it would be hasty to predict how their friendship would affect the relationship between the organizations they lead. Mr. Lee’s umbrella union is not the easiest party for the government to deal with. Until now, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has refused to join the tripartite committee and has concentrated on demonstrations. The words most associated with the confederation are “struggle” and “hard-line.”
But it is time for the confederation to change. Fortunately, the new president emphasized talks and negotiations. In order to implement this change in emphasis, Mr. Lee must move his organization into the established system of talks, i.e. the Tripartite Commission. The confederation no longer has any excuse to remain an outsider.
The confederation dropped out of the commission in February 1999 with the claim that the government had not kept its promises to the labor unions in the process of restructuring industries following the foreign exchange crisis in 1997. The confederation accused the government of being too eager to pursue policies that were unfavorable to labor, such as allowing companies to lay off employees, but not keeping promises such as working hours reductions.
Relations between the confederation and the government have soured since then and the confederation was excluded from discussions of major labor policies. The government criticized the confederation for hindering labor policies without providing realistic alternatives.
Fortunately, conditions in the economy and labor-management relations have changed greatly these days. Never before has there been such an atmosphere of willingness to talk on the part of all sides.
The confederation must ack-nowledge that the only way to get started on solutions for poverty, unemployment, the ill-treatment of irregular employees and other issues that it sees as its major tasks is to sit at the negotiations table.
The season of “spring struggle,” as the demonstrations by laborers demanding wage hikes every spring has come to be known, is approaching. Mr. Kim and Mr. Lee must start to think of ways to stabilize the labor-management relations. Above all, they must try to raise the level of our labor-management system to that of an advanced country to attract foreign investors and create more jobs.
The labor minister must learn the realities of workplaces if he wants to reform the customs of labor-management relations. Only by properly assessing the situation will the government be able to successfully prepare for negotiations. The government must also remember to maintain consistency and continuity of its policies.
Mr. Lee, the union president, must throw away any thoughts of colliding head-on with management and the government to get what the laborers want. He must come up with a new perspective and strategy to redesign the future of the confederation. He must not fail to read the changes in the times.
In the movie, “Chingu,” one friend ends up killing another friend. But Mr. Kim and Mr. Lee must create a culture of coexistence between government and labor.
The two must also act with good will in their competition to win the support of the public. We expect Mr. Kim and Mr. Lee to act like true friends in their efforts for a revolution in labor-management relations.

* The writer is the social affairs news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Ui-joon
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