[VIEWPOINT]Labor unions should stay in lane

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[VIEWPOINT]Labor unions should stay in lane

Our society has been shocked by the revelation of a labor union involved in hiring irregularities at a large motor company.
I think that labor unions are not alone in conducting irregular business because corruption is rife in our society. I don’t think the responsibility of the management of the company, which colluded with the union for fear of strikes, is light either. The problem is that this incident cannot be approached simply at the level of individual irregularity alone. The incident shows that Korean society, which pursues an advanced economy, should take this occasion to have a closer look at the status and role of labor unions.
Needless to say, the domain of labor unions is to speak for the interests of union members. It may be natural for the unions to expand political influence, using votes as a guarantee, but this should be carried out legitimately within the reasonable limits. Moreover, an uncontrolled group can be easily affected by the interests of the organization itself or that of organization leaders, rather than by the interest of its members. Here lies the essence of the problem of the irregularities.
The social malfunction of overly powerful unions can be easily found in the experiences of Western Europe. For example, the labor unions in Germany, with a mere 17 percent unionization rate, are blocking the flexibility of the labor market and the ability of the reform system to serve the interests of the entire society.
There is a case in point where an uncontrolled union committed irregularities. Promising to provide inexpensive housing and a warm urban environment for workers, Deutschen Gewerkschaftsbund, or German Trade Union, established a construction and housing company, “Neue Heimat,” or “new hometown”.
With political help from the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the various privileges in the national housing and urban development projects, this company grew to be the largest construction company, Konzern, in Germany. Since the 1970s, the company had been keen on real estate speculation across the world, only to be defeated in the speculation in luxurious villas in France and driven into a crisis of bankruptcy. In 1982, illegal internal transactions between its affiliates, embezzlement, bribery and illegal funds given to the union leaders and politicians were disclosed one after another. This scandal accelerated the collapse of the Social Democratic Party, and the company was also virtually dissolved after having wrought huge damage to the labor union and the finance of the government.
The company, which was established by the labor union to protect workers, finally collapsed after committing all kinds of evil practices of pariah capitalism.
At present, the unionization rate of Korea is a little over 11 percent. In addition, three quarters of the union members are regular workers at large businesses with more than 300 employees. Harshly speaking, it can be said that labor unions are organizations for regular employees of large companies. I doubt if these organizations can speak for the interests of all workers. In the hiring-related irregularities this time, a head of a labor union with regular employment exploited temporary workers with low wages. In this context, it sounds paradoxical that proclaiming to protect the interest of atypical workers, the Korean Confederation of Labor Unions, an umbrella organization of the union in trouble, attempted to stage a general strike at the end of last year to oppose the bill on the protection of atypical workers proposed by the Ministry of Labor. The fact that the labor union used strikes as a means to threaten the management indicates the influence of the labor unions at large businesses.
The two largest umbrella organizations, the Korean Confederation of Labor Unions and the Federation of Korean Labor Unions, have recently tried to exercise influence on various social issues that do not belong in the domain of the union. The reality is that they have intervened in issues ranging from the abolition of the National Security Law to education policy and environment-related national projects, and even to media and judiciary reforms. Concern rises because this is the early symptom of the labor unions becoming overly powerful.
Labor unions should return to their original mission. It is not right to attempt to intervene in the managerial rights of the company, including personnel affairs. It is time to reflect on whether they thought of and cooperated with the other members of society to seek ways to genuinely serve its entire membership. Labor unions can take interest and participate in social issues.
They should not be possessed with self-righteousness but should respect the principle of party autonomy and exercise their political influence legitimately through political parties. Also, labor unions should first raise their organization rate so as to represent all levels of workers equally. They should carry out their actions by means of representation and rational procedure, not by physical force. This is also the basis of the legitimacy for the labor movement.

* The writer is a professor of economics at Sangji University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Hwang Shin-jun
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