[Viewpoint]Education offices in chains

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[Viewpoint]Education offices in chains

The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education requested the members of the teachers’ union to agree to 21 items of a 192-item collective agreement. The office argued that because of these items, it was difficult to make schools autonomous and to guarantee students’ right to study.

The education office also announced a plan to notify the union that it should abandon the collective agreement altogether if its members do not agree. In that case, the entire collective agreement will be void in six months according to the Labor Union Law.

What’s so wrong with the collective agreement that the education office felt it had to come up with a hard-line measure such as unilateral cancellation?

There are more than a few problems with the collective agreement made between the superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education and the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union. A collective agreement is supposed to include clauses on working conditions only, such as wages, health benefits and welfare. However, this one goes way beyond the usual scope. For example, it states that evaluations of academic achievement can only be conducted at certain schools designated in advance, and that one school’s results cannot be compared to those of another school.

The teachers’ union made it clear that the education authorities will not be able to evaluate either teachers or students. Moreover, the agreement includes clauses that let teachers and education workers get involved in administrative affairs in education in general. The assignment of homeroom teachers and the division of work have to go through a personnel advisory committee, and a school can only be designated as a model school after getting the written consent of more than half the teachers and education workers. In effect, the education office abandoned its own rights voluntarily, and it cannot avoid criticism for having neglected its duties.

Moreover, the collective agreement approved by the Seoul Office of Education states that the educational authorities provide the offices, equipment and supplies used by the teachers’ union. It is hard to find the logic behind the government offering so much to a union that rakes in tens of billions of won every year in membership fees.

The superintendent also exceeded his authority. He let the collective agreement include clauses on private schools’ appointment decisions, faculty status, statutes and the release of budgets and account balances. These issues fall under the jurisdiction of the private institutions, and are not something the superintendent can negotiate about or agree upon with the teachers’ union. The superintendent deserves to be criticized for having abused his power.

The problem is not limited to the collective agreement of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education. The agreements made by the education offices around the country in places like Busan, Daegu, Incheon, Gwangju and Gyeonggi Province contain nearly the same set of problematic clauses.

We all know the mighty influence of the teachers’ union, but the education offices should be ashamed for having abandoned the administrative right to education, essentially shackling themselves. In October 2006, a civil group filed a criminal complaint against the Ministry of Education and 16 offices of education around the country for dereliction of duty and abuse of power.

Regional education offices indeed made efforts to renew the collective bargaining agreements. Most of them had been signed in around 2004 and could only be renewed after a year, and the offices attempted to renew the flawed deals. However, the teachers’ unions did not have a united front, and so a collective negotiation could not happen. The Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union was reluctant to negotiate together with the Liberal Teachers’ Union.

With an overwhelming number of members, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union does not want to sit side by side at the negotiation table with the newly organized Liberal Teachers’ Union, which was founded in 2006 and openly advocates its conservative tendencies. Even if the deal is renegotiated, the new one cannot be greater than the existing deal, and therefore, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union has no reason to renegotiate.

Thanks to the clause that the existing agreement is in effect until the collective agreement is renewed, the one that was signed in 2004 is still valid. According to the Labor Union Law, it is possible for an interested party of the negotiation to unilaterally cancel the agreement with notification.

While the teachers’ union claims that the unilateral cancellation is against the law, they have no legal grounds.

It is fortunate that the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education is finally trying to cancel the agreement after being fettered for five years. Education offices around the nation in similar situations also need to act now.

The writer is a professor of law at Inha University and an attorney at law. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Jae-kyo
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