On the wrong track

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On the wrong track

Two men are arguing in a library. One wants the window open and the other wants it closed. The librarian walks up to them and asks why they were making so much noise. One wants fresh air and the other does not because he is cold. The librarian quietly shuts the window and instead opens the window in the next room to clear the air. The men return to their books because they no longer have a reason to argue.

This case is cited in the classic guidebook on strategies to come to mutually acceptable agreements in every sort of conflict, “Getting to Yes.” The authors and researchers of the Harvard Negotiation Project advise people in conflict to focus on interests - not positions - to resolve their problems. Since its original publication in 1981, the book has been translated into 18 languages and served as a supplementary textbook in administration and business management classes.

The authors - Roger Fisher and William Ury - recommend that the first rule to negotiations is separating the people from the problem. If they are considered as one, the person across the table will come across as the enemy. Nasty and vehement words could be exchanged, leading to a breakdown in negotiations.

What about the ongoing confrontation between the union and management of the Korea Railroad Corporation, or Korail? The union is attacking the president and her family’s private affairs. Once targeted as an enemy, a person’s privacy and human rights tend to be ignored.

The management labels the strikers as “unlawful” forces that threaten public safety and the transportation infrastructure. But individually, those striking workers are just hard-working men and women trying to make a living for their families back home. The two sides are engaged in a conflict of interests. They must first recognize each other, treat one another as fellow partners with different positions, and then concentrate on their disagreements.

Of course, that is easier said than done. The men in the library got into an argument because they refused to see the other party’s side. Their genuine interests are set aside when they insist on merely sticking to their original point. When emotions are bruised, the parties enter a confrontational stage that could by accompanied by the use of force or violence.

To reinforce one’s stand, a party often comes up with a bigger cause that is usually irrelevant to the essential goal or conflict. Unionized rail workers in a walkout accused the government and Korail of secretly planning a “privatization” of the high-speed railway system during a rally over the weekend and also protested against the alleged meddling in last December’s presidential race by the state spy agency, which has been the centerpiece of political conflict throughout the year.

What has the last presidential election got to do with railway services and benefits for employees? The union is not a defender of universal justice. Why does it have such passionate interests in so many problems anyway? Its banner cry - “Returning the railway to the people” - also raises eyebrows. The railway is already run by a public corporation.

Do they seriously think the average man believes railway workers have any particular concern about the public interest at large? They should be honest and list job security and wage hikes as their main concerns. All the rhetoric and overarching principles won’t produce any practical results for the members of the union.

The government is equally immature. It was deliberating privatization of the money-losing high-speed rail system until last year, but it dropped the plan due to strong union protest. It doesn’t have much credibility.

It is hard to decide on the issue of privatization of public companies and the infrastructure system. Privatization is resisted in all countries due to strong conflicts within a social framework. Just because it has been successful in one country doesn’t necessarily mean it will be in another. Privatization can look like a failure at times but later prove successful for the company and country. Privatization of railway systems in Britain, Germany and Japan have had mixed successes.

The Korail dispute is a pure conflict of interest. The union ultimately seeks job security and better working conditions. The management wants to reduce corporate debt and deficits, and increase productivity. The differences should be addressed with financial books at hand.

The union and management should abandon their protests of justice and concentrate on how they can better operate the public train system. They are not waging a religious war and none of them will become martyrs if they do not triumph. Violent language and action only get in the way of possible solutions.

During conflicts, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan used to say that as long as there is dialogue, progress is being made. Korail’s union and management must get down to the nitty-gritty to find a breakthrough. They are wasting time and precious public money, not to mention risking public safety with pointless wrangling over irrelevant issues.

The union also must be aware of whom it is fighting against. What do strong female leaders - such as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who took on Britain’s unions, uncompromising President Park Geun-hye, who insists on principles, and Korail CEO Choi Yeon-hye - have in common? The union had better consider changing its tactics.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Nahm Yoon-ho
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