Unions’ outdated approach

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Unions’ outdated approach

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), one of the country’s two largest umbrella labor unions, has pledged it will go ahead with a mass rally on Dec. 5 in downtown Seoul. KCTU head Han Sang-gyun, who has been taking refuge at Jogye Temple in central Seoul to escape police arrest for orchestrating the violent Nov. 14 rally, warned of a massive demonstration that could paralyze not only the capital, but the entire country.

Han is the former head of the Ssangyong Motor labor union that staged a militant resistance and protest against massive layoffs in 2009 by occupying the industrial site. The company then was on the brink of going bankrupt, selling just 71 vehicles a month. It failed to respond to market needs by sticking to bulky sports utility models like the Musso and Korando despite a sharp rise in diesel fuel prices.

Ssangyong Motor has managed to turn around after its divorce from the militant KCTU. Following support from its foreign owner, Mahindra & Mahindra of India, since its acquisition in 2010, the company rolled out fuel-efficient models. Its first mini SUV Tivoli released this year became an instant hit. The carmaker is expected to rake up an operating profit in the fourth quarter and is rehiring its former employees. The fate of workers hinges on a company’s competitiveness, not the union’s head-strong protest.

The KCTU is facing strong opposition. It has been blamed for every violent demonstration, from anti-American protests to the Sewol ferry disaster rally. The public has turned cold against its stubbornly militant ways. Even the labor unions are turning their backs against the umbrella group. Its membership has been reduced to 690,000 from 750,000 in 2006. Unions prefer to stay independent instead of joining other industrial or umbrella groups. Non-alliance labor union membership that stood at 40,000 in 2003 increased to 260,000 in 2007 and reached 430,000 last year.

More and more are shunning the KCTU due to its backward structure and ways. The KCTU is home to the Metal Workers’ Union, whose members total 140,000 and are mostly employed by large manufacturers enjoying various perks and privileges, 75,000 government employees, and 60,000 unionized teachers. It also protects 65,000 workers of public railway and subway operators and public utility companies.

In short, it is composed of workers who are employed for life in stable public organizations. It is why we have a bizarre data. The salary gap between the regular and irregular workforce in workplaces with unions is bigger than those without unions. Irregular workers of small and midsize companies without labor unions earn 38.6 won (3 cents) against 100 won earned by the permanent workforce in large companies with labor unions, 44 won less than 10 years ago.

The Japanese Trade Union Confederation, or Rengo, should be a lesson for the KCTU. Rengo, led by public sector and teachers’ unions, was famous for militant anti-government protests. Companies trying to compete on the global stage have begun to turn their backs on Rengo. The organization shriveled as more labor unions broke out of the umbrella group to act alone. After the conservative government pursued privatization of the postal service, its viability came under serious threat. Today’s catchphrase for the organization is “sumiwake,” meaning co-existence.

The KCTU is going down the same path. Once-loyal workers of Hanjin Heavy Industries and Ssangyong Motor have left the group to save themselves. The labor union of Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering agreed to a no-strike deal and other restructuring terms that creditors laid out after the company teetered on the brink of insolvency. The public sector would inevitably face privatization. The KCTU is already gathering support to fight against what it claims to be a government privatization scheme. But workplaces today are brimming with employees who prefer to choose practical union policy.

For today’s generation of jobless young people and majority of the irregular workforce, the political campaigns and industrial strikes by elite labor unions are all a luxury. They would love to trade places with those with secure jobs if they can work and be paid decently for their labor. The KCTU could be digging its grave if it pushes ahead with the December rally. Labor experts point out that the Korean labor sector is the most outdated system in the country. The unionized labor force must pay heed to a growing critical voice and changing times.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 1, Page 34

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

by Lee Chul-ho
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