Teacher union stripped by gov’t of legal status

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Teacher union stripped by gov’t of legal status

The Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union, a group with a 24-year history, was stripped of its status as a lawful union yesterday for keeping fired teachers in its ranks.

Its president, Kim Jeong-hoon, called the move political persecution and said the union will go to court over the decision.

The Ministry of Employment and Labor informed the country’s second-largest teachers union yesterday afternoon of its decision to take away its legal status. On Sept. 23, the ministry ordered it to amend its bylaws, which gave memberships to dismissed teachers, within a month. The deadline expired Wednesday. As of yesterday, nine former teachers are still in the union.

Shortly after the announcement, the union held a press conference and denounced the order.

“The union became unlawful as the Park Geun-hye administration planned,” the union said. “But we stand by the important values of the laborers. We will fight to nullify the government’s decision.”

A group of 47 lawyers supporting the union filed an injunction with the Seoul Administrative Court. It also filed a lawsuit to challenge the government’s decision.

Once the union loses its legal status, employer-paid, full-time union officials must go back to schools to teach. The union also loses a 5.2 billion won ($4.9 million) lump-sum budget from the national government. Its right to collective bargaining will also be taken away.

In an exclusive interview with the JoongAng Ilbo Wednesday, Kim deplored the government’s treatment of the group, which was founded in 1989 as an unlawful union of 1,527 teachers dismissed from their jobs. After years of struggles, the union was legalized in 1999 and has 60,000 members.

“If the injunction is granted, we can keep our status as a lawful union until a ruling on our challenge is made,” Kim said. “If the Ministry of Education ordered our 76 full-time officials to return to schools, we have to reject that. Without them, our organization will collapse.”

Kim said the group also filed a constitutional petition to challenge the law governing the teachers’ union, which says that dismissed workers cannot be members. “Just because our bylaws are against the current law, it is going overboard to take away our legal status,” he said. “There are other unions which continue to provide membership to dismissed workers. The government has done nothing against them but went after the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union. It is political oppression that has continued since the Lee Myung-bak administration.”

Kim said the National Human Rights Commission recommended the Labor Ministry allow the union to continue offering membership to dismissed workers.

And he said he stands by the union’s decision to reject the ministry’s order to revise its bylaws because the matter was decided through a vote. The union held a general vote on Oct. 18, and 68.6 percent voted against the revision.

“The Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union is a democratic union,” Kim said. “We had fierce discussions, but there was a consensus that we must respect the outcome of the vote.”

Kim said the union is more than willing to talk further with the government. “We made several proposals to the Labor Ministry,” he said. “But we didn’t get a response. That is why we concluded that the ministry wanted to strip our legal status for some other reasons.”

Kim suggested that powerful people in the administration are “displeased with the union members’ teachings on democracy and modern history. Just because we have different opinions they must not try to push us outside the boxing ring.”

Kim also denied accusations that the union was militant or pro-North Korea. “The democratization of education that we helped promote contributed to the democratization of Korean society as a whole,” he said. “We didn’t act aggressively. In 2009, teachers declared their opposition to the Lee Myung-bak government’s policy to redevelop the major four rivers. That was freedom of expression. When we protested the state-ordered student performance test, we offered field trips to the students in lieu of taking the tests, and teachers were fired for that. We were not militant - the administration was militant.

“And it is a distortion to call us pro-Pyongyang,” he continued. “Just because we demanded the abolishment of the National Security Law, we shouldn’t be labeled as showing blind support for the North. Perhaps a very few teachers have used undesirable expressions about North Korea, but that is not the union’s position.

“You must not think we are all pro-Pyongyang,” he said. “But I cannot say that 100 percent of us are not.”

Kim said he supported some of the Park Geun-hye administration’s education pledges but said that doesn’t mean that the union supports her. “I did not support Park during last year’s presidential election,” he said.

“Most of the union members probably didn’t. But that does not mean that we do not recognize her as the president.”

Kim said Park’s pledges to reduce the number of students per class and simplify the college admissions process are meaningful.

“We have demanded for more than a decade to lower the number of students per class to match the OECD averages of 21.2 for elementary schools and 23.4 for middle and high schools,” he said. “Our demand is to create schools where we can teach, because the nation’s public education system is collapsing.”

Elected last December, Kim is the 16th head of the union. The 49-year-old teacher began his career in Ganghwa High School, Gyeonggi, in 1989 and served as the union’s North Jeolla chapter head.

While serving in North Jeolla, Kim protested key government policies in cooperation with the head of the North Jeolla Provincial Education Office, Kim Seung-hwan. They demanded that the student performance evaluation system be abolished and that schools stop keeping records of student violence.

Since 2007, the leadership of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union showed moderation, but with Kim’s election the union is now run by a hard-line leadership.

BY SER MYO-JA, SUNG SI-YOON [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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