Group is harming its own causeSouth Koreans are famous for their obsession with education. Yet the public education system is on the brink of collapse. Students commit suicide because of rampant bullying, and teachers are repeatedly humiliated and are even beaten by students and parents. The general belief among students and parents is that they receive most of their education to get into colleges at private cram and tutorial institutions instead of at public schools. Parents spend the bulk of their monthly income to pay for expensive tutoring. Teachers have long been demoralized and students suffer double stress.
Despite the disastrous state of the system, teachers loyal to the progressive Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union, or KTU, are more preoccupied with protecting their union instead of tending to their students. Parents and students resent the union for destabilizing public education with its selfish interests. The government stripped the union of its legal status because it disobeyed the teachers’ union law.
Under the current union law, members must be fully-paid teachers. But the union kept former teachers as its members. The government repeatedly advised the union to obey the law, to no avail. The government gave an ultimatum with a compromise, proposing that the union could retain its legitimacy if it changes the status of former teachers as employees of the union. But the union resisted. It lost its lawful status because it remained intransigent.
Yet the union claims the government was oppressing teachers’ fundamental labor rights. But common citizens cannot agree with this claim when they examine the reason behind the dismissal of the discharged teachers. The problematic teachers were sacked because they were involved in political activities - election engagement and violation of the National Security Law - which is unrelated to their primary work at schools. The resistance and intractability of the union only reaffirms the general belief that it is too political and ideologically lopsided, supporting a certain left-wing political party. Its argument on the oppression of labor rights therefore does not draw much sympathy from the general public. It cannot win support in its campaign to revise the labor law to ensure the former teachers’ membership unless it reverses public opinion and suspicion about its identity and direction.
Teachers’ unions in advanced societies endeavor not only to improve the rights of teachers but also to create a better teaching and learning environment. They play a role as a professional interest group. They respect the public role of teachers and primarily focus on enhancing their teaching capacity. They develop and offer new teaching methods to assist students in not only learning but in their everyday lives. They provide guidelines on ethics and behavior codes so that teachers can earn authority and respect.
The teachers’ union of our country should also strive to win respectable status as in advanced societies. It should then first recover its legal status. It can do so simply by changing the status of the former teachers within the union. The union claims the issue is already settled because the union members have already voted in favor of bestowing full membership to the former teachers. But it should go to a revote so a decision can be made.
It is a suicidal and unwise choice to forgo a government subsidy and protection as a lawful union in order to keep a few former teachers. The group should endeavor to restore its status and work toward saving public education.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is an economics professor at Dankook University.
By Kim Tae-gi