[Viewpoint] Teachers first, union members next

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[Viewpoint] Teachers first, union members next

The latest controversy over the disclosure of the political activities of members of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union is often described as a contest between the right to know and the right to private information. However, looking at it that way is an exaggeration and simplification. Rather than a fundamental clash between the right to know and the right to protect private information, we have to consider the parents’ desire to learn about the members of the teachers union, which is frustrated by the union’s objection.

Strictly speaking, the controversy is more about anonymity and identity. Anonymity certainly offers certain comforts, but why would a public organization like the KTEWU need the comfort of anonymity? The KTEWU has been operating as a teachers’ group with an open identity; it has been openly using its name when making political statements, opposing the national college entrance exam, advocating lectures on special topics and opposing bonus payments.

Then, why does the union want anonymity all of a sudden? It is cowardly for such a major teachers union, with 150 full-time executives, to operate like a secret society like the Freemasons, who trace their origins to a medieval stone masons guild. The KTEWU has taken pride in its accomplishments. If the union members are proud to be advocates of “true education,” it would be only natural for them to disclose their membership status. A manufacturer of a good product advertises its name proudly. Today, we are living in a time when even instant noodles have the producer’s name on the package. If the union members do not have sufficient pride to disclose their involvement in the organization, I wonder how assiduously they have been pursuing “true education.”

The union claims that union membership is not made public in other countries, but that’s a lame excuse.

Why does a teacher consider union membership as the main measure of his identity? A member of the union is a “teacher” before he is a “union member.”

If the KTEWU was just any old union, it would never have found itself at the center of a raging controversy. There has been no demand to disclose the membership of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. So why did teachers’ union membership become a contentious issue?

The KTEWU is an organization of teachers. Whereas they may rank below principals and assistant principals, they are more powerful than the students and parents.

Pedagogy, the study of being a teacher, originates from the Greek word paideia which means “to lead a child.” Parents and students address a union member as “teacher,” not “union member.”

Moreover, a teacher chose a career in teaching first, and then joined the union, not the other way around. At the end of the day, his identity as a teacher precedes his identity as a union member.

No one wants to know where a teacher comes from or what religion she practices. However, parents and students are curious whether a teacher joined the union because of its boisterous activities.

Parents are interested in and concerned about teachers’ union membership status because the union has been involved in political and social activities with an ideological inclination. They have been promoting special lectures whenever a politically-sensitive issue arises, such as the dispatch of troops to Iraq. Yet, they did not schedule lectures on the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the nation in the Battle of Yeonpyeong.

The union is criticized for being ideologically biased because they focus on anti-American and pro-Pyongyang ideas while neglecting to teach patriotic love for the nation. Because of their tendency to obsess over ideology, even some progressive friends of mine confessed that they do not want a union member to be a homeroom teacher for their children. Of course, the teachers’ union will defend itself, arguing such criticism is a unilateral attack from the conservative camp - and they have made great accomplishments.

However, if the union has truly made a contribution to “true education” as it claims, teachers should be proud to be members of the union and openly disclose their involvement. If the union thinks it has done well, disclosing its membership list should be an honor. If the union thinks it needs improvement, it should make the list public and vow to reform. It is hypocritical to boast of its power as a group whenever it can but hide behind the law when it pleases.

The union should consider disclosure as a vaccine shot instead of a poisoned chalice. When children get a vaccine shot, they cry. However, a vaccine is necessary to keep you healthy.

I would like to ask the union if it is willing to voluntarily disclose its membership list as a way of asking for confidence from parents.

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

By Park Hyo-chong
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