[EDITORIALS]Workers want union reformAbout 74 percent of the unionized workers at Hyundai Motor Company in Ulsan say that union leaders should no longer wear their red vests, according to a recent survey by the union. Members also said that union leadership was an obstacle to the union itself. They were demonstrating extreme distrust toward the senior officials of their own union, naming them as subjects for reform. There is an important message here.
The red vests are symbols of Korea’s labor movement and its history of labor activism. Union leaders gather the opinions of members, negotiating with employers and leading collective actions. In the past, under Korea’s authoritarian military regimes, labor unions made great contributions to alleviating poor working conditions. But at some point labor unions themselves began to be thought of as sacred.
Umbrella labor federations and unions at large companies became dinosaurs, abusing their power. The red vests of the union leaders became symbols of power and authority.
All organizations become corrupt when they gain power and turn into bureaucracies. Leaders of the port workers’ union in Busan and a union of Kia Motors workers sold jobs to applicants, and Federation of Korean Trade Unions leaders took bribes. Structural corruption has continued. Recently, eight former and current leaders of labor unions at Hyundai Motor were arrested, and six others are also facing charges.
The survey of Hyundai’s unionized workers in Ulsan demonstrates that the workers are expressing their dissatisfaction over the greed and the privileges of the “aristocratic” labor union leaders. Some union members even proposed that union leaders no longer wear nametags identifying their titles and that they not be given the privilege of using the front doors to the plant, which rank-and-file workers are not allowed to do.
The union at Hyundai Motor has 42,000 members, the largest union at a single company. The union has considerable influence with management and with other companies’ unions. A report on the union by the Federation of Korean Industries recently identified such problems as unrealistic wage demands, declining productivity, too many union leaders and too much intervention in management.
The union leaders must listen to the members’ demands for reform, and make their union a healthy, ethical organization.