More perfect unions needed

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More perfect unions needed

“What is economic democratization?” asked my daughter, a university student, over breakfast. My mind suddenly went blank. I needed to come up with a concise, to-the-point and yet plausible answer in both professor-like and fatherly language in 10 seconds.

While my brain churned, I could see I was losing my interlocutor. To a generation used to communicating with society and the world in summaries and Web abbreviations, a lengthy and comprehensive Wikipedia-like explication could only elicit a yawn. As I opened my mouth to start my reply, my daughter jumped out of her seat. She had to cram for midterms.

I could have instantly answered her if she narrowed down the theme. To back-street merchants, the popular campaign slogan could promise a check on competition from large retail franchises. Economic justice, to construction site laborers, could mean more work from government-led infrastructure projects or a revival of housing construction. Farmers could demand resumption of state subsidies for farming and their equipment and cheap loans that the current government scrapped. Fishermen would connect the glorious sounding term to the state providing allowances for when they return home from sea empty-handed, and funding to fix their fish farms after they are wrecked by typhoons. Democracy can mean many things to many people.

It’s not about what will happen way down the road to the people just struggling to get by. It’s about the youths hoping for a job that would make their parents proud or breadwinners facing retirement and desperate for a chance to be rehired somewhere. For the seven million baby boomers facing retirement, a small office they could go to in the morning with briefcase in hand might be as much justice as they could wish for.

Despite its grandiose sound, the concept of “economic democratization” is something simple and basic to the public. Highbrow theorization has nothing to do with their daily worries about bread and butter issues.

And yet the presidential candidates with their campaign brain trusts all came up with the same single cure-all prescription to the nation’s problems with inequality. It is called chaebol bashing.

Large family-owned conglomerates have routinely served as punching bags in presidential elections every five years. But the jabs and blows coming from every corner this year are pretty hard to take for even for the ever-resilient chaebol.

The public has been well educated about what monsters they are and have been. The combined revenues of the top 100 companies exceeds those of one million small- and medium-sized companies! The four major business groups account for more than 50 percent of the country’s gross domestic product! They have fattened themselves and grown by exploiting and cheating smaller companies and stealing their technology and employees they took the time and trouble to train! Tsk, tsk!

The defeated forces of the Roh Moo-hyun government regrouped under the flag of the Democratic United Party and are renewing an aggressive campaign against the chaebol. They are determined to go all the way in crushing and taming the chaebol to save the nation from their predatory and unfair influences. Independent liberal candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, an entrepreneur himself, suddenly joined the hard-line front and organized a chaebol reform committee in his campaign, declaring that he’s in favor of the extreme measure of dismantling the chaebol as they are currently configured.

The Saenuri Party, which won votes by singing the anti-chaebol tune in the last legislative election, is also cooking up a sensational recipe to address the issue. We can’t wait to taste it!

Despite the dangers they face from the politicians, the response from the chicken pen is, so far, out of tune. The Federation of Korean Industries - the biggest interest group for the large conglomerates - issued an unimpressive statement that a concept called economic democratization does not exist. It threatened that when it came into existence, it would surely put our growth engines - and all Koreans! - at risk. But it is too late to win back public favor with textbook theories.

Before the chaebol officially become Public Enemy No. 1, they should come up with innovative programs for their own reform that demonstrate some greater social responsibility. That’s a no-brainer.

Another contributor to economic polarization is hidden. Economic democratization should try to lessen domination of the manufacturing and labor market. Large companies are blamed for dominating manufacturing.

What we neglect is that militant labor unions control the labor market. Few are brave enough to blame the domineering Korean Confederation of Trade Unions for placing employees in workplaces on contracts with large companies on a non-permanent payroll. Anyone who dares to attack the powerful trade unions might as well throw away his or her political career. In a nutshell, however, KCTU is a public enemy for eight million non-salaried workers.

During its 16 years in business, the KCTU concentrated on building its political power. It mustered votes from the industrial base and successfully turned out a few legislators. While unionized workers dominated work at large industrial sites enjoying job guarantees and pay increases, non-permanent workers at parts suppliers and other subcontractors never knew if they’d go to work the next day. They are first to be sacked - instead of unionized workers - in downsizing thanks to deeply rooted arrangements between chaebol executives and unions.

The preferential benefits the unions have enjoyed over the years are as culpable for economic inequalities as the chaebol. No policy can work to resolve economic inequalities without helping non-permanent workers.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

* The author is a sociology professor at Seoul National University.

by Song Ho-keun
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