A less perfect union

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A less perfect union

Upon hearing the popular strike anthem “Iron Laborer” by folk singer Ahn Chi-hwan in early 1990s, passersby would respond affirmatively with clenched fists. Amidst the roaring wave of Korea’s democratization movement, the unions were the people’s military who stood at the forefront of the confrontation with our authoritarian regimes.

In 2013, Ahn’s anthem does not elicit the same respect from the public. The unions’ combative demands and militant ways have worn down the people as well as the economy. The exclusive club of salaried employees with full benefits in large companies have shut the gates on their former comrades, the nonregular workers, and left them to their own devices. Their new chorus is a dreary and selfish one, blaming all the polarization in the country on the elite.

In the Gwangju factory line of Kia Motor, a 37-year-old man surnamed Kim set himself on fire and another 29-year-old worker surnamed Kong of Hyundai Motor killed himself as well. The former, a director of a committee of subcontracted employees, and the latter, a contract-based worker, took the ultimate sacrifice for the same goal: That contract workers should get the same breaks as regular full-time workers. Kim could not get on the regular payroll due to the exclusivity of the salaried labor force. Kong was fired after failing to get on the list of contract workers who were promoted to full-time status.

The exclusive club of unionized regular workers is guaranteed job security until retirement, and they do not care about suicides or other actions by their non-regular colleagues. They are entirely preoccupied with protecting their interests and job security until the retirement age of 60, along with employment guarantees to their siblings and average annual salaries of 100 million won ($89,200).

I do not want to disgrace the unions, but anyone who has scratched the surface of our industrial site would be astonished. The Kia Motor branch of the metal industry union finally got from management what it was after: 10 percent premium scores for the siblings of long-term and retired employees during the first interview for new hiring and an additional 5 percent extra points for the second interview. About 25 percent of placements in new recruitment are reserved for long-term workers and their family members.

Job inheritance has been blamed for ruining the Latin American economy. Yet the outdated and anti-free market practice is being forced on major companies in modern Korean society. Moreover, outrageous privileges are being demanded by those who fought for democracy and the right to lead decent human lives. The union also attached an age cap of 35 on temporary workers. About 75 percent of workers at Kia Motors are disqualified by the age limit to be on the permanent payroll. Kim, at 37, was among them.

The Hyundai Motor union - one of the most demanding of union groups - won promises from management to place 3,500 irregular staff on the permanent payroll by 2016. It even sent irregular workers on a risky protest mission atop a power-transmission tower to achieve that goal. Management kept its side of the bargain and hired 800 on a permanent basis. Yet the irregular workers - who have not worked long enough at the company - are not eligible for a status change yet.

The union and management compromised by leaving room for dismissal among the irregular workforce. Kong was among the victims. He chose to demonstrate his existence as a human, which had been deemed unnecessary and worthless, by publicly ending it. This is what the union of a world-class automaker that boasts average pay of 95 million won has accomplished. Hyundai Motor is sustaining its expensive unionized workforce at home through gains from outsourcing in overseas factories.

But Hyundai and Kia are not the only ones involved in this situation. Korea GM incurred 300 billion won in losses last year because it had to take into account the 800 billion won after the union filed a lawsuit to demand that various bonuses and overwork allowances should be incorporated into the annual salary account. General Motors headquarters in the U.S. is seriously thinking of pulling out of the Korean factories that are occupied by the militant union. As local automakers are being dragged by the nose by unions and losing productivity, Chinese competitors are quickly catching up on the global stage. If our companies lose their competitiveness, even permanent workers will no longer have jobs that are even remotely secure. They may argue that the management could do better.

The Chung dynasty of Hyundai Motor Group may look sturdy, but is nevertheless no match for the militant union. If Hyundai and Kia Motor stop production, all of their decades-long work in overseas markets will go down the drain. Over 1,000 parts suppliers to the country’s largest auto-making group would go bust and their 500,000 employees would be out of work. Such an extreme measure by a chaebol would be suicidal. The militant union knows this well so it continues to tame the management with the equivalent of a whip and a chair.

Who can stop them? In the 1990s, unions were a symbol of the democracy movement. In early days, there were leaders with a genuine dedication to workers’ rights. But the unions are now led by selfish agitators with political ambitions. Large companies must endeavor to gain the confidence of society, but the unions also must wake up and reinvent themselves before they are completely shunned by the public.

Translation by Korea JoongAng Daily

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

by Song Ho-keun
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