With a new union, a new era?

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With a new union, a new era?

A gigantic wind of change will likely blow across the country’s labor movement. Last week, the Seoul Metropolitan Subway labor union declared that it would leave the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions - the militant umbrella union group - paving the way for the creation of a new politically neutral union.

The Seoul Metropolitan Subway labor union, which runs four subway lines around the capital, had been on the front lines since the KCTU’s launch in 1995. The labor union earned notoriety for stopping trains with its habitual walkouts.

But an organization infamous for its radical measures has divorced itself from the umbrella group that has come to symbolize the country’s militant labor riots because of disillusionment and fallout. The KCTU’s constant entanglement in political and ideological battles clearly had a toll.

The new union, consisting of the labor unions of the Seoul Metropolitan Subway, Hyundai Heavy Industries, and Korea Telecommunications, will likely directly challenge and undermine the power and influence of the KCTU.

The new organization plans to focus on improving welfare and work conditions instead of pursuing a blind socialist ideology and naked political aspirations, as the KCTU has been doing. The new group is also expected to pursue an ordoliberalist viewpoint and pragmatism to seek better workplace conditions and the interests of unionized employees.

With an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 members, the new union is no match for the mammoth KCTU, which has 590,000 members. But if the nascent group presents an answer to a new form of labor movement, its membership could grow in time.

Once the new labor law, which allows a multitude of unions in one workplace, takes effect in July, bondage to the militant umbrella group could quickly dismantle. Over 310,000 independent union members who are not aligned to the two major union groups - the KCTU and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions - could join the new group. If the KCTU does not change its style and platform, it may end up with a thin membership roster.

Labor movements should change according to the needs of the times. In order to establish itself, the new union group must present a feasible alternative solution and a path forward for a new labor movement. We hope it will find its way with both dialogue and cooperation.
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