Union’s softer line welcomeThe Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has established its new leadership, electing its former secretary-general Lee Seok-haeng as its new chairman. Mr. Lee is known to be a relative soft-liner within the more radical of the two labor umbrella groups in Korea, who opts to continue negotiations even when striking.
Unlike the former leadership that had driven a die-hard campaign of violent strikes, Mr. Lee has announced that he will choose a new way of confronting the management, making demands but at the same time presenting alternatives and prospects from the perspective of the laborers. This is a most welcome change. While Mr. Lee’s victory was a close call -- the confederation had to hold a second vote -- it can be seen as a sign that the majority of the confederation members have now become wary of the hard-line tactics of the past.
It is clear that the confederation must change. Not only the government and the management but even its twin umbrella organization, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, has turned its back on the group.
No longer does the public sympathize with its radical tactics. Unless the confederation learns to accept the necessity of a mature labor-management relationship based on compromise, it might one day discover that it has driven all prospective new jobs away. Instead of using sticks and Molotov cocktails to deliver its messages, maybe the confederation should stop and ponder just how it could win the heartfelt support of its majority and the general public. Mr. Lee has promised that from now on, walkouts will be “a method and not an objective.” He has vowed to win the acknowledgement of the members and the support of the public.
Change in the confederation has just begun. A few new leaders won’t immediately transform the organization’s culture. There is already concern that the confederation might split with the election of the new alternative leadership. The hardliners who lost in the election might refuse to accept defeat and engage in even more radical actions. Genuine change will occur only when democratic procedures are established and implemented within the confederation.
We still remember past incidents when confederation meetings descended into violent chaos when the members started arguing among themselves. Unless the members of the confederation conscientiously say no to the tyranny of a hard-line minority and the disregard of democratic procedures, change will be slow to come.