[Outlook]The battle with labor

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[Outlook]The battle with labor

The incumbent administration has a distinct difference from the former one. That is, the new administration expresses regret for its wrongs. The president already delivered two apologies. The people seemed relieved to see the president’s earnest expression as he said he changed his mind about his policies while watching candlelight vigils.

However, there is a similarity between the two administrations as well. The new one is also too quick to talk. It would be ideal if the administration acts, and then follows up with words.

It took several weeks for a presidential secretariat and cabinet shake-up. Follow-up measures for the deal to import American beef haven’t come into effect. While Kim Jong-hoon, Seoul’s chief negotiator for the beef deal, is holding talks in Washington, the Korean administration is promising not to import certain types of beef. This situation makes us nervous, as there are still no legal measures for the ban.

Labor issues are putting a heavy burden on the Lee Myung-bak administration. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions declared it will stage a strike in July. The administration somehow solved a truck drivers’ strike. But it doesn’t seem to have the capacity to deal with the powerful Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. The administration lacks oversight and backup forces to defend the president’s words. During the last administration, former student activists and progressive intellectuals worked hard and civic organizations backed the government. In the incumbent administration, the president alone makes remarks, acts and takes responsibility. Now, a battle against the labor sector is imminent. The president upset labor shortly after taking office, and the time to pay the price has come.

This battle was expected. The president’s mantra has been “business-friendly policies” and he has promised that labor issues will be easily solved if companies create new jobs. He said if that didn’t work, then things would be sorted out in accordance with law and order.

It wasn’t a good idea to put celebrities and wealthy people in government posts, excluding labor experts who could pacify the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union and confront the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. The labor field has already detected that labor issues are the administration’s Achilles’ heel. The Korea Cargo Workers’ Union was the first to test the government’s capacity. As it got good results, the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions has started to call in the real troops. The metal workers, railway workers, medical service workers and public sector unions are warming up, waiting for the order to attack.

If a labor union battle is unavoidable, the administration shouldn’t display its conservative nature. In 1981, the Ronald Reagan administration in the United States fired 13,000 air traffic controllers who took part in a strike and banned them from re-employment for 10 years.

In 1985, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain cracked down on a miners’ strike and seized workers’ assets. The Iron Lady revised the labor law as many as eight times to push through privatization, tax cuts and regulation-easing measures, the usual list for conservative administrations. Union workers were given the freedom to refuse the decisions of their leaders because incapacitating the unions was a precondition for privatization. Such vigorous attacks were possible and successful because the people were enraged over the unions’ frequent strikes, persistent poverty and an economic crisis.

Although impressions about Korean unions have changed, if the conservatives apply these tempting measures they will likely face an enormous calamity, not a huge success. The sitting administration is neither confident nor capable enough to take such steps. Most of all, it is better to embrace the unions as main drivers for economic growth.

When an administration is conservative, it needs to take on a progressive labor policy for a while. If conservative measures to shackle labor unions are likely to cause unnecessary conflicts, it is better to pursue tolerance and dialogue. These require patience.

If things go wrong and the president ends up having to deliver a third apology, the administration will become incapable of doing anything. The functions of mediation agencies, the Labor, Management and Government Commission, and the National Labor Relations Commission should all be enhanced to listen to and filter complaints coming out of the labor sector.

This must be completed in July, in preparation for the major task of privatizing public corporations. If the administration, which doesn’t have reinforcements or rescue forces, becomes stranded once again, it can no longer talk about reforms.


*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Song Ho-keun
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