[EDITORIALS]The unions must change

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[EDITORIALS]The unions must change

Korea’s two umbrella unions are hanging their heads, unable to stand upright any longer in the face of so much corruption in their ranks. At a room salon, according to prosecutors, the leader of a taxi drivers’ union asked construction company executives for a bribe of 1 billion won ($1 million), and ultimately received 650 million won in return for loans from the union’s welfare fund. As investigators closed in, the union head called the company executives to get their stories straight, and even asked them to launder money.
The head of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions called this “the most crucial crisis in the history of the federation.” He said, “I am embarrassed and I apologize to the union members and Koreans.” The head of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions acknowledged that “such corruption resulted as the unions attained power and became a bureaucracy.”
It is good that the unions are reflecting upon themselves, however belatedly. It is not surprising that they have promised to adopt auditing systems to prevent such corruption from happening again, to ban union members involved in corruption from leadership positions and to make public labor leaders’ assets.
Unions have been treated as sanctuaries since democratization. Prosecutors and police were helpless against them, and politicians and the press turned a blind eye. The umbrella unions, and the unions at large companies, have grown too big, and society and the government have overlooked it. But the unions could not avoid the truth that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Greed and a sense of privilege have led to the scale of the corruption we see today.
The unions’ self-examination should not end with a stopgap measure. As they promised, they have to change. Labor unions define themselves as protecting the rights of the common people and realizing social justice. For this to be true, they have to separate themselves from internal criminal forces that would break the law in the name of the cause. There is a Chinese proverb that describes metamorphosis as the process by which a maggot becomes a cicada, and a firefly grows from spoiled grass. The point of the proverb is how very difficult it is to change. We will see whether the umbrella unions are capable of becoming sound organizations.
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