[VIEWPOINT]Shipping unions under fire

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[VIEWPOINT]Shipping unions under fire

Allegations of corruption by former and incumbent executives of the Busan Shipping Union are growing. As it has been revealed that the executives allegedly accepted bribes in the course of hiring, transfer and promotion of the union members, the public is concerned for the fall of yet another labor union giant’s morality.
The alleged corruption of the shipping union is not news. While the issue comes up almost every year, no solution has been found. When the competitiveness of the logistics and shipping industry is emphasized, we can no longer turn away from the corruption of the shipping union, for it would undermine the competitiveness of our ports.
The problems of the shipping union can be put into two categories. The first is the problem of “closed shop,” a system requiring all workers at the port to be a union member. It essentially gives the union an exclusive right to supply labor. While other unions are prohibited from having a closed shop, the shipping union was allowed to use the system according to the Employment Stabilization Act.
The system gives the labor union the power to control and manage the workforce in order to overcome the fluctuation and seasonal nature of the job at the port and to supply a stable labor force. It has been implemented in England and the United States as well.
However, other countries are increasingly adopting an open shop system to let non-union members work at the port as the fluctuation and the seasonality are largely reduced due to the automation of dock operations and the increasing proportion of liner vessels.
Under these circumstances, sticking to a closed shop system not only is contrary to the trends but also will undermine the competitiveness of the Busan Harbor in the end. As the new port opens in Busan, the foreign shipping companies that will come into Busan are hoping that the union would change its existing customs.
The bigger problem is that the corruption of the shipping union originates from the closed shop. When the union executives have the power to practically guarantee the survival of the union members, from admission to appointment to promotion, some union leaders have openly received bribes from the members in return for jobs.
As a result, former and current union leaders have accumulated an astronomical fortune while union members suffer from low wages and arduous duties. The irregularity born from the closed shop system reminds us that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The second is the problem of the democratization of the union leadership structure. The shipping union elects the chairman through an indirect election by delegates, and foremen, team leaders and delegates are virtually appointed by the influence of the chairman.
The system of electing the chairman through an indirect election by delegates will only strengthen the autocracy of the current cadre of leaders. In fact, a union leader was re-elected when the voting was moved up four months so that the leader wouldn’t be too old to qualify as a candidate, who must be no more than 60. The union election, which is supposed to be most democratic, has been abused.
In order to eradicate the corruption and to accomplish the democratization of the union, internal reform is most desperately needed. The corruption of some unions has created a negative image of unions as a whole, and it has hurt the overall labor movement in Korea.
If the shipping union fails to reform itself, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, the umbrella organization of the Busan Shipping Union, should conduct an investigation and handle the issue decisively.
If the voluntary reform is carried out half-heartedly, law enforcement authorities must get involved. The shipping union is no longer a group protecting the interest of its members but exists for the sake of a few leaders’ interests.
The government’s intervention in the shipping union’s affairs doesn’t constitute the oppression of a legitimate labor movement but an act to help the union members exploited by the union. The direction of reform should be focused on re-establishing a competitive labor management system, switching from the current closed shop to open shop, and implementing a democratic election system, where workers are given the power to elect their foremen, team leaders, delegates and chairman.
Whether the reform is implemented voluntarily or by the government, change is the only way to encourage the development of the shipping union and enhance the competitiveness of the national shipping industry.

* The writer is a professor of business administration at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Dong-won
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