More imperfect unions
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
We light candles when we pray. It is a universal custom transcending religions, nations and races. We light candles for Christmas and Buddha’s Birthday. The glow of a candle spreads a wish and illuminates the moving of a person’s heart. Around this time two years ago, the candles that were lit in Gwanghwamun Sqaure contained such a power. The power was so strong that countless citizens poured into the cold streets with lit candles. It was in this way that Koreans ended a period of remarkable abuse of presidential power that extorted large sums from large corporations and was guilty of many other misdeeds.
As a result, the Moon Jae-in administration is called the “candlelight administration.” The name embodies the people’s wish to end certain conventions that are not to be proud of and reinvent the order of the nation. But the original pure candlelight spirit is gone, and uncertainty about the future is growing. At the center is the abuse of power by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). It has become a power of its own intent on protecting its own interests even if it has to obstruct change and innovation for a better future. It brutally destroyed the pure candlelit ideals of innocent citizens.
The administration was born from candlelight vigils and acknowledged the contribution of labor unions in the overthrow of the previous government and establishment of the new one. The policy direction of the Moon administration includes pro-union, anti-business and anti-market policies. The minimum wage is being drastically increased and a 52-hour workweek and upgrade of contract workers to full-time employees were pushed with lightning speed. In the name of economic democratization, business bashing has become routine.
In less than a year, those policies are pushing the Korean economy off a cliff. Unlike major economies around the world, Korea’s job situation is in a deep freeze. Breadwinners in their 40s and 50s fear losing their jobs, just as their fathers did during the Asian economic crisis two decades ago. Key economic indicators such as investment, production, employment, spending and exports are looking bad.
The government is considering a slowing of its existing policies because the half-baked and bold economic experiment has failed. The rate of the minimum wage increase could be slowed, and the deadline for flextime in workplaces has been extended. President Moon is determined to cut back on red tape and have more talks with the corporate sector. That may not lead to a total policy reversal, but the government seems to get ready to fix its policies’ many flaws.
Korea has had a half-century history of labor agitation since Jeon Tae-il burned himself in protest of poor working conditions in 1970. As a result, wages at large companies with unions have increased considerably. The salaries at Hyundai Motor are higher than Toyota’s. And yet the labor movement is getting more militant. Rather than studying how to make better products, it focuses on protecting its own interests. Thus, we hear of Korea’s “union aristocrats.” Their struggle nominally targets chaebol. With slogans like “Irresponsible management by owner families victimizes workers,” they stimulate hatred and anger. They seem to have concluded that they will always be on the side of justice if they attack the families that control conglomerates.
As a result, companies are ailing, and the Korean economy is subsiding. Did our citizens hoist their candles to see this? Good citizens will feel frustrated if their political activities are being used by selfish — and aristocratic — unions. The unions need to stop abusing the influence they gained from the candlelight movement and start behaving like more responsible members of our society.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 20, Page 31