[Viewpoint]Unions need to join rest of the world

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[Viewpoint]Unions need to join rest of the world

The Federation of Korean Metal Workers’ Trade Unions, which was publicly criticized for forcibly staging a strike to protest the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, plans another strike at the end of July. Already, public voices of concern are rising.
Just a year ago, last June, the federation became a large-scale industry-based union after the labor unions of the four major automakers, with more than 140,000 members, decided to join it.
An industry-based union can expose various labor management conflicts at affiliated workshops and bargain with management. However, on the negative side, it can be hard to accommodate the diversity of businesses, making the bargaining process complicated and increasing the possibility of labor conflicts.
In South Korea, locally based unions are reluctant to end their activities after they become industry-based. Due to the multi-stage bargaining that goes on, the cost of bargaining rises quickly and the possibility of staging a strike on social issues gets much higher.
There is already a high level of concern about the activities of industry-based unions.
The federation of metal workers unions, which elected new executives in February, organized a strike to protest the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, which has nothing to do with its right to collectively bargain for a wage increase.
It ended up getting more criticism from the press and the public than it ever had before.
At the same time, other industry-based unions, such as the health and medical workers’ unions and financial workers’ unions, have also engaged in collective bargaining this year on wage increases with management.
But the prospects for smooth labor-management negotiations do not look as bright because businesses have been tightening their belts recently. Earlier this year, the number of labor management conflicts had decreased compared to that of last year, and many companies declared they were free from labor conflicts. Recently, that atmosphere has changed drastically.
The world trend today is that labor management relations have become decentralized, and concessions made by both labor and management are on the rise.
The German metal workers’ union agreed to increase their working hours at Volkswagen by five hours without a wage increase, and another automaker, Audi, got concessions from its union members at its factory in Brussels to extend their working day by three hours.
The labor and management at Deutsche Telekom agreed to reduce their wages and extend their working hours in exchange for employment guarantees.
The United Auto Workers, one of the largest labor unions in North America, is also actively negotiating with American automakers about adjusting the terms of employment and reducing pension support.
The labor union at Toyota Motor Corporation has not had any disputes for 57 years. For this long record, the company owes a great deal to the spirit of partnership of the union members, who shared in the pain while working to build the company’s international competitiveness, while maintaining a company-based union system.
South Korea seems to be going against the trend as its business-based collective bargaining changes to industry-based bargaining.
While labor unions in other countries strive to find a way to coexist with management, the Korean labor unions are regrettably still confined to the old combative labor movement.
The industry-based unions can win the hearts of the people by showing a changed attitude and making painstaking efforts to wipe out the people’s worries and distrust.
When a mammoth labor union with more than 140,000 members figures out a new role that it can play to coexist, not struggle, it will be a catalyst for an epoch-making change in labor management relations in Korea.
The focus of the labor movement would begin satisfying the practical long-term interests of its members by reflecting their voices, instead of concentrating on issues related to wages, welfare and labor policy.
The labor unions must participate actively to develop business, society and the nation by nurturing the professional abilities of workers, providing the infrastructure for the creation of jobs, the promotion of welfare and doing volunteer work.
The future course of the labor unions will be decided by what role the unions perform and how much popularity and public support they can gain.
The value of a sword is recognizable, even if it is in a sheath.
The greatness of a valuable sword diminishes if it is drawn too often. It all depends on the unions themselves, and whether the industry-based unions strengthen their public support. They can wipe out the criticism and worries that have been expressed so far, or follow the current road that lowers the participation by workers and increases public criticism.

*The writer is a research fellow at the Samsung Economic Research Institute. Inquiries on this article should be addressed to leeji13@seri.org. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Jeong-il
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