The KCTU needs to negotiate

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The KCTU needs to negotiate


Kwon Soon-won
The author is a professor of business administration at Sookmyung Women’s University.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) is a major umbrella labor union. The organization is smaller in size than the Federation of Korea Trade Unions (FKTU), but wields greater influence thanks to the scale of their members. While the FKTU’s 841,000 members are spread across 2,395 unions, the KCTU’s 649,000 members are concentrated in 368 unions of key industrial players, including the Korea Metal Workers’ Union, which represents auto and ship companies like Hyundai Motor and Hyundai Heavy Industries, and public rail operator Korail as well as the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union.

The roots of the KCTU in the progressive labor movement can be traced back to the aftermath of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule. But the umbrella union gained ground in 1987 as workers laid down their tools to fight against the military regime and for democracy. The spread of labor protests in 1987 gave birth to as many as 52,000 new unions during the second half of the year. Soon, two umbrella unions separately representing factory and office workers were formed. Their merger led to the KCTU in November 1995, which had 420,000 members.

In its earlier days, the KCTU could not get legal protection, as the Labor Standards Law and Labor Law existed mostly in name. Labor activists risked imprisonment at that time. Through many struggles, the fearless KCTU became synonymous with Korean unions, which lead the democratic and social movements in Korea. It became a legitimate umbrella union after the financial crisis in 1997.

After gaining legitimacy, the KCTU actively took part in social, economic and political reform movements and broadened its influence. It not only generated a progressive political party and many politicians, but some of them were recruited to the Blue House, government and other public offices. They hold a sizeable place in the liberal Moon Jae-in administration.

The organization has been striving to defend and strengthen workers’ rights, but has come under fire. The majority of its nearly 650,000 members work in large corporations that employ more than 300 people and enjoy decent pay and benefits, as well as job security for life.
Despite their envious privileges, they still refuse to yield any of their vested power. Following a general strike last week against the government’s plan to extend flexible working hours, they boycotted the legitimate tripartite bargaining platform. They are also out to overturn an ambitious government project to create jobs in Gwangju.

The umbrella union’s refusal to participate in a dialogue with governmental representatives and employers is most perplexing. Negotiating is an important tool for a union to enhance its members’ rights.

In the past, unions had to camp out in the streets and risk clashes with police to get their voices heard, as their legal status was not accepted by the government and employers. But today, they are denying earnest invitations from the government and employers.

There is a bigger problem. While they occupy various public committee seats that can protect their vested interests, they reject their responsible place in social dialogue. The KCTU sends members to various government committees and councils, but they are reluctant to talk with the government and employers. They shun the tripartite body because they think they must surrender their vested interests.

A social dialogue body is a platform that seeks consensus for long-term structural and system reforms. The union’s cooperation is pivotal. Without the KCTU, any discussions on ways to increase jobs, upgrade the status of contract workers and seek industrial restructuring are not possible. The so-called Gwangju employment project — which was backed by the central and city government and Hyundai Motor to create jobs — cannot take off due to strong oppositions from the KCTU.

KCTU must return to the days when they were devoted to helping weak workers. Over the last decade, Hyundai Motor has established six factories in China, two in India, and each in the United States, Czech, Turkey, Russia and Brazil. It has not built a single one in Korea.
As a result, more than 65 percent of Hyundai Motor cars are assembled overseas, and the domestic supply chain has been steadily withering. Our carmakers cannot even draw loans from banks because the industry is considered “risky,” even when industry is struggling due to higher costs from minimum wage hikes and shortened work hours.

The KCTU must sincerely participate in social discussions on the stainability of unions and jobs. Without jobs, the very existence of unions is at risk. The average age of members of Hyundai Motor’s main Ulsan factory is over 50. They will leave the workplace within the next 10 years. They must ensure that jobs remain after their retirement. The top priority of the KCTU should be finding ways to co-exist in this new environment and safeguard jobs.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 26, Page 29
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