[Viewpoint] The meaning of the KT union vote

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[Viewpoint] The meaning of the KT union vote

The number of unionists who are not registered as members of an umbrella labor organization is increasing rapidly, from 44,000 in 2003 to 283,000 in 2008. Last Friday, 95 percent of the voting union members of Korea Telecom, or KT, decided to withdraw from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. Since almost every union member cast a vote, the verdict has clout.

Unionists who could not rail openly against the combative KCTU did so quietly with their votes. The unions of 17 other companies - including Ulsan NCC and Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation - have also withdrawn from the confederation for similar reasons. Even though the KT union, which is the largest single corporate labor union, withdrew and one of the industrial labor union alliances, the IT alliance, was on the verge of disintegration, the confederation is making no effort to reform. Instead, the KCTU raised “suspicions that the management interfered” in the voting.

How could this happen?

The labor movement in Korea has long been following a different drummer in labor-management relations. In fact, it often gives the impression that Korean unionists are purposely opposed to international union trends. But following the vote, it’s necessary for the KCTU and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions to consider what prompted the KT union to call for “a labor movement with a new strategy and vision” when it announced the dramatic results of the vote.

First of all, the Korean labor community goes against the international trend of moving from a “centralized movement” toward “decentralization,” a practice that gives a voice to more diverse constituencies. The leaders of the central organization want unionists to believe in them and follow the decisions they make. Although they demand that political leaders “facilitate communications with people and practice politics of understanding,” the labor leaders themselves are not interested in facilitating communications and fostering understanding between them and unionists or union factions.

As a result, arbitrary and dictatorial guidelines for “struggle” are produced. These, in turn, become the main cause for conflict with management and refusal to compromise.

On top of that, some civic groups, labor unions and intellectuals have promoted arguments that equate the term “labor union” with the weak and virtuous people in society. As such, they show that there can be a political bias in the very term “labor union.”

In fact, it’s especially difficult to tell whether the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions is a labor union, a political group or an ideological organization. It has played a leading role in street protests against the dispatch of troops to Iraq, the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement and government policy on North Korea.

It should be noted that the KT union, when it withdrew from the federation, said that “the political struggles staged so far do not conform to the demands and the sentiments of unionists.” Other labor unions that withdrew also said that “a labor union is deprived of the characteristics of a union as soon as it stages a political struggle against the government.”

In other words, Korea’s labor movement is isolated from the international trend of moving from a “politics-centered” movement to an “economy-centered” one.

Also, it is time to boldly throw away the “strike first, negotiate later” strategy that aims to “win victory through struggle” by setting strike ultimatums and using strikes and protests from the onset, instead of beginning with talks and negotiations.

The fact that 87 percent of illegal labor disputes that broke out between 2002 and 2006 were at the workplaces under the KCTU is, in this sense, an embarrassment.

It is also necessary to change the practice of “focusing on the distribution of profits of individuals” to “focusing on the enhancement of the competitiveness of the organization.”

Labor movements that neglect the competitiveness of the organization in a global society of powerful and far-reaching competition may make people’s wallets thicker in the short term, but will ultimately lead to the fall of both labor and management by weakening the future development potential of the organization.

General Motors in the United States is a case in point. The umbrella organization, the United Auto Workers, ignored changes in the business environment, such as excessive wage increases and the sustained low factory operational rate of 80 percent. Instead, it only sought the economic benefit of the union and its unionists. As a result, the company sought short-term financial gains instead of making long-term investments. This is the background behind the company’s filing for bankruptcy on June 1.

Indeed, the trend of “giving special prerogatives to business executives” should be broken. Instead, the “noblesse oblige” of the leading class should be emphasized. At the same time, world labor unions should emphasize the importance of their organizations’ democratic and ethical operations, as well as financial transparency.

In Korea, however, unionists are lenient on themselves while demanding that management satisfy the requirements mentioned above. Examples abound. Just consider the statements, actions and measures taken following corruption scandals related to employment of workers, missing union fees and sexual abuse.

The labor community needs self-reflection. To do so, it should use the global trend as a standard. After passing the proposal to withdraw from the KCTU, KT unionists said, “We feel like we are finally a labor union.” I hope the KCTU and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions think hard about the significant meaning of those words.

*The writer is an executive director of Samsung Economic Research Institute.

by Chang Sang-soo

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