Unions collide with reality

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Unions collide with reality

Kim Ki-chan
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


All the following took place on the same day, April 3.

The Kia Motors branch of the Korean Metal Workers’ Federation (KMWF) held a meeting to vote on a motion to remove two heads of its Gwangju division for supporting the public-private project to establish a car manufacturing plant in the city paying half the normal wage. One labor-related official said the vote was more or less a disavowal of the Blue House. When I asked why he thought so, he answered as follows: “President Moon Jae-in attended the signing ceremony of the Gwangju project to tout it as the government’s symbolic achievement on the job front. The ousted union division heads were also among the invited. The so-called Gwangju model to create jobs was vehemently opposed by the unions of the two largest automakers — Hyundai and Kia — the metal industry and the bigger umbrella Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). So they decided to oust the two branch union heads of Kia Motors. That’s a manifestation of our disapproval of the Blue House on the public-private project to establish a car manufacturing plant in the city.”

Around the same time, KCTU unionists held a rally in front of the National Assembly in Yeouido in Seoul to protest the legislative moves to extend the statutory flextime and to demand adoption of the International Labor Organization (ILO) guidelines. They clashed with police, and injuries were reported. The walls around the legislature were damaged by the protesters. A reporter covering the scene was assaulted by KCTU members. All of the demonstrators arrested at the scene were released later that night.

On the same day at the Blue House, veteran economic policymakers sat down with President Moon. Park Seung, a former Bank of Korea governor, advised the president not to be swayed by unions and push ahead with the Gwangju project to gain “applause” from the broader population.

In a public forum on the following day, a member of the Economic, Social and Labor Council — a presidential tripartite body on labor affairs — said Korea oppressed the labor sector. On the same day, KCTU executives decided to go on a general strike later in the month. The dialogue option has been thrown out the window — they were like creditors threatening to use force to collect their debt.

Former President Roh Moo-hyun also started off with labor-friendly policies. He insisted that union demands must be heard even if they were made through illegal means. He claimed the employers would be defeated if they fought with the union. When the truck union boycotted deliveries, Roh met with union leaders. “Did I change? Yes I did. I had to after tending to state affairs every day,” he said. He turned more realistic after seeing the economic damage.

The ruling power may also be finally coming around to facing reality. Hong Young-pyo, floor leader of the Democratic Party (DP), said last month that the ruling party would seek to reform the structure of the labor market through social consensus. He even proposed large and public companies to freeze salaries of their employees. Labor reform tabooed under liberal administration seems to have finally surfaced.

Adoption of the ILO recommendations or reform of the labor sector can be pursued according to our conditions. Extending flextime is also a part of labor reform. That was agreed by both employees and employers. All agree that labor reform is pivotal to restore the Korean economy. When the KCTU went on a general strike in protest to the extension of flextime, only 3,000 out of its one million members joined.
When some go the ILO, Korea may be mentioned by the ILO. But defaming the country as a labor-oppressing state, rallying in front of ILO assembly or shouting “liar” to the Korean labor minister on the podium cannot help anyone.

A golf player should keep their eyes on the ball when they make a tee shot to see whether it goes out of bounds or falls into a rough spot. The other players would not want to go on playing with them if they insist that a ball stuck in the rough did not fall out of bounds. Fair play should apply to labor relations too.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 8, Page 27
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