No bluffing from KCTU
The author is a senior editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
It may not have been all huffing and puffing when the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) threatened it could oust Moon Jae-in. In a rally following the arrest of its leader, Kim Myeong-hwan, members of the militant umbrella union vowed to teach the government a lesson for challenging the organization. KCTU being at the peak of the power hierarchy in Korea may not have been an exaggeration. Otherwise, how could it challenge the government that put two former presidents and chief justice behind bars?
There must be a reason why law enforcement authorities helplessly condone the brazen and illicit ways of the KCTU, whose members beat police officers, storm into workplaces and raid public institutions. Since President Moon took office in May 2017, KCTU membership ballooned to one million from 300,000. At this rate, the leftist KCTU may join ultra-right Taegukgi group in antigovernment protests on the street. Why is the government so weak against the umbrella union?
In a rally in November, Kim, chairman of the KCTU, scolded the ruling Democratic Party (DP) for forgetting to whom it owes the presidential election. The former KCTU chair, Dan Byung-ho, accused the Moon Jae-in administration of betraying the KCTU, which put it into power through candlelight vigil protests. He was upbraiding the government for arresting the leader of the organization it owes its power to. Such arrogance stems from the firm belief that without KCTU and its role in the massive rallies to remove former President Park Geun-hye, Moon could not have been be elected.
It is true that the KCTU was central in staging the marathon weekend rallies from October 2016 to March 2017 until the Constitutional Court gave its final ruling upholding the legislative impeachment. The planning, the crowds, the funding, the stages, the rally programs, the banners and the flags all came from the KCTU. Civilian groups and citizens joined in streets every weekend, but the credit goes to the KCTU for planning, organizing and funding the rallies. Politicians merely went on the stages and rode the bandwagon. It is no wonder that the KCTU feels it has a stake in the government and that the Moon administration cannot shake it.
The KCTU, which has declared war on the Moon administration, uses the general strike as its strongest weapon. Out of working population of 25 million, just one million are aligned with KCTU. The 4 percent of all workers can hardly determine the fate of the government. Yet the unions of the country’s biggest workplaces — including Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors, public teachers, government employees and media organizations — are under its umbrella. They can shape social opinions. The leadership is well experienced in swaying public opinions on social issues — like mad cow disease and the Sewol ferry disaster — through violent rallies.
Whether Kim is released from detention on bail, the government would have to face the KCTU one way or another. The group has divorced the government. The liberals know how hard the militant umbrella union can be. Moon, who had been the chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, would remember how violent and recalcitrant the KCTU became following the truck union strike in 2003. Ten of his teeth fell out due to intense stress at the time. He could be tempted to bargain with the devil. The union would turn peaceful if he raises the minimum wage to 10,000 won ($8.70), calls off an extension in flextime, allows dismissed workers to join the union and ratify the core conventions of the International Labor Organization.
French President Emmanuel Macron was in the same spot after being elected. He went ahead with labor reforms by relaxing rules for dismissals and enabling more flexibility in working hours. He cut labor income tax, but bumped up the workweek to appeal to “working France.” French workers resisted heavily through mass strikes. His approval rating plunged to 20 percent. But he stayed firm and, as a result, the unemployment rate came down to a 10-year low. Spending has picked up.
A corrupt administration was replaced by a grassroots movement — not by the KCTU. The government must bluntly tell the KCTU that it owes it nothing. The president may fear he could lose everything if it loses KCTU. But in the end, he would be winning over a broader population.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 28, Page 31