[Viewpoint] Mediating matters

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[Viewpoint] Mediating matters

I could actually feel history repeating itself while watching the Ssangyong Motors labor dispute develop. Why do these issues crop up year after year after year? In fact, labor disputes in Korea are now as predictable as the summer monsoon season.

A broad analysis of historical labor disputes reveals some similar patterns. During the early stages, employees’ complaints and ire rise before company management realizes what’s going on. At this point - particularly if there are layoffs or pay cuts - some discontent employees form a labor union or spark some type of dispute with management with the support of outside groups.

Then, the president of the company, who often feels restless and betrayed, consults legal experts or labor advisers, perhaps with revenge among their motives. Some legal firms demand very high fees, but that fact doesn’t concern a president entangled in the dispute.

To confront its powerful enemy, a labor union involves an industrial trade union equipped with the ability to put up a fight. And a political struggle such as a conflict over the issue of non-regular workers is a matter of the highest priority to the industrial trade union. As the conflict unfolds, like any typical battle, company management surrounds itself with profit-making legal advisers while the labor union takes up its position with the industrial trade union eager to use its political and military-like abilities.

No winner exists in this war, like in any war. Inevitably, the relationship between the two sides gets stuck in a tedious deadlock. Then, when the political struggles end, as summer monsoon gives way to autumn, a curtain falls down as if nothing has happened. Considering the occurrence and development of labor disputes, it’s extremely difficult to arbitrate and resolve the power struggles between labor and management once a strike has begun. Therefore, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of a cure.

The first task is to secure arbitrators who understand and know how to deal with the power relationships and emotional problems between labor and management.

These candidates should be able to facilitate efficient communication with outside forces backing up labor and management, respectively, and gain the trust of those involved. That’s why people such as professors or priests shouldn’t serve as an arbitrator for labor disputes; they lack the hands-on experience of working as laborers.

Then where and how can we find mediators and cultivate them? A United States government agency - the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service - employs people such as presidents of industrial trade unions and executives who work in human resources and labor-management relations as specialized mediators.

The United States has seen remarkable progress since the late 1990s when this institution was first set up.

In Korea, we have enough talented personnel to carry out these kinds of arbitration challenges. And using labor union leaders serves another purpose: working in mediation might open up a new career path for those involved.

For this to happen, we have to strengthen public and private capabilities for the prevention and mediation of such disputes. Currently, the Labor Ministry appears unable to prevent labor disputes.

In Korea, the labor committee is wholly responsible for mediating a labor dispute after a strike breaks out. But in the United States, it is the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service that plays the prominent role. The organization is equipped with 200 specialized mediators who are dispatched to large-scale workplaces and companies likely to face strikes for year-round consultations and observations. They play a leading role in resolving the dissatisfaction and complaints held by employees at the very place of business.

Korea’s labor community has also begun to employ some outside experts, but it has to further expand recruitment to deal with the breadth of problems here. In the U.S., several private mediation groups conduct prevention activities alongside public organizations. Similar kinds of groups should be allowed to engage in prevention programs in Korea as well.

To this end, the government should resolve the issue of certification for mediation experts and legally guarantee the authority of their activities. In addition, it should separately manage the certifications after appointing some of those who underwent special education and passed the state qualifying examination.

Legal guarantees are also a prerequisite to ensure that private mediators can act freely without fear of retribution. Disputes can be resolved by private mediators or agreements only if the government grants the same legal authority as collective agreements and encourages both sides to comply with such provisions.

*The writer is a professor of Ajou University and the president of the Korean Association of Mediation and Arbitration.

by Park Ho-hwan
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