[Outlook]21st-century unions

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[Outlook]21st-century unions

When children are little they listen to their parents, trust what they say and obey them. But as they grow up they can discern right from wrong and they observe their parents’ words and actions carefully. If parents force children to obey them without practicing what they’re preaching, children will refuse to do as they are told.

Since rationality is inherent in human beings, irrational relationships are hard to sustain.

These days an increasing number of labor unions want to break away from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. This seems a natural result of how the umbrella union has been behaving.

Labor unions are seceding from the KCTU or refusing to pay union dues. But this is more than the simple act of cutting ties. It seems as if the foundation for a new labor union, one that fits our times, is being built.

The biggest reason the KCTU finds itself in its current deep trouble is that the organization has carried out a labor movement for itself, led by only a few leaders.

A labor union should be organized voluntarily by union members and run autonomously by them, so their rights and interests are protected. Democracy must be practiced in organizing and running a labor union, but members of the KCTU have had extremely limited opportunities to take part in the decision-making process.

On the surface, conventions are supposed to the highest decision-making bodies. But now they are nothing more than rubber-stamp events, and do not deliver the opinions of union members. A few leaders dominate the decision-making process.

Even when decisions are made to stage a host of strikes motivated by political issues, such as opposing importation of American beef, they are made regardless of how union members feel, and the decisions go unchecked.

As a result, the umbrella union has lost the support not only of the people, but also of its own members.

The recent move by many labor unions under the KCTU umbrella can be seen as a democracy movement breaking away from the undemocratic structure in which power is concentrated in a higher body, and to restore the centrality of each workplace and union member. They do not want their labor unions to cater to the umbrella union, but to work for the members.

A labor union can pay up to billions of won, or millions of dollars, to its controlling union.

But each union receives few benefits in return even as its members are mobilized for a variety of events. Such practice should not continue in this era. The labor unions also want to abandon arbitrary fights and confrontations.

These days it’s hard to survive even if labor and management cooperate. The leadership of the KCTU may not know it, but those who work in the field know how fierce competition is.

The practice of labor and management posing together in photo-ops to pretend they collaborate no longer works. A new structure so that labor and management can co-exist is being formed. Under this setup, the two work together to overcome difficulties that their companies face.

Such labor unions are common in other countries.

In Europe, where the labor unions the KCTU is now desperately trying to emulate hail from, negotiations within each company are replacing negotiations in each industry. As a consequence, industry-wide labor unions are losing their power because different companies have different situations, even within the same sector.

Since 2000 in Japan, collective agreements on freezing basic salaries have become commonplace. The labor union of Toyota Motor Corporation, the company that generates the most profits in its industry, proposed it first. The union members froze their basic salaries out of concern for other companies that were having difficulties in bad times.

The KCTU must think hard about the meaning of today’s resistance from factory-floor labor unions.

If the umbrella union regards the moves simply as resistance from opposing factions and only tries to maintain its control, it will face disaster. It can no longer survive by pursuing the confrontational paradigm of labor versus management.

In a 21st-century labor union, each union and its members take central roles and a higher organization supports them, cooperates with companies and looks out for workers in the workplace.

*The writer is a professor of economics at Sogang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Nam Sung-il
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