Unions show their true stripes

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Unions show their true stripes

Lee Doo-soo
The author is a construction site worker and author. 

 I am a day laborer working on apartment construction sites. When I first started this work five years ago, every part of my body ached. I could not stretch my fingers properly after a day working on construction sites. As time went by, my body adapted. The pains became more bearable on my body. But the more I knew about this job, my head got heavier with a big question.
I came to wonder why society is so engrossed with the mind and pays so little respect to the body. While the body is concrete, the mind is abstract and sometimes idealistic. I wondered if people turn to the conceptual world to find relief from concrete and sometimes harsh realities.
Politics can be an example.
Comedian-turned-commentator Kim Je-dong got his own talk show thanks to his open affiliation with the party in power. On one of the shows, he said, “The hammer in the hands of a laborer and the gavel in the hands of a judge should be respected equally.” Kim may have though he was standing up for laborers. Maybe he wanted to raise the morale of such hard workers. But his comment offended me, the type of person he may have thought he was supporting. Has Kim ever tried hammering on a construction site?

A laborer hammering away for a living wants his child to study hard and become something reputable, like a judge. In concrete terms, the judge’s gavel is much lighter than a hammer. But symbolically, it has far more weight. The tap of a gavel can change the life of a person standing before a judge in a court. Because of his weightier responsibilities, a judge is rewarded with much greater pay than a manual laborer. I do not believe this gap in the pay represents inequalities in our society. Kim may have been playing up to laborers, who, after all, greatly outnumber our judges. In fact, his remark only provoked sneers from construction sites.

Whether they are appreciated or not, a builder works with the pride of his profession. He is making a living space for someone. Although the home is not mine, it is rewarding to think that my toil and sweat can one day contribute to the happiness of some person who buys or rents the apartment I built. I do not want pipes to leak or walls to crack in the buildings I work on. Laborer in the field do not work half-heartedly just because their work may not be appreciated by everyone.

All the workers I have met on construction sites have the same commitment to their work. The more seasoned the worker is, the higher integrity he shows. A veteran worker doesn’t take materials or procedures for granted. He does not scorn his fellow workers for any mistakes or missteps. If he can make fixes, he does so without complaints or showing off. The years of physical labor train the body, but also the mind, the spirit of workmanship.
What really troubles hard-working laborers are unions under overly powerful umbrella groups: the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU). When manual workers join a union, their daily earnings can increase by 20,000 won ($17) to 50,000 won. Many laborers join for the extra pay. But there is no free lunch, even on a construction site. In return for higher wages, they must join protest rallies. Strikes are led by outside union workers rather than workers in the company. As a result, those union officials often make demands unrelated to workers on site.
The two mammoth umbrella unions took turns holding rallies on the construction site I worked on last year. Anthems rang out for days. The loudspeakers resonated in the space I worked in, causing headaches throughout the day. I eventually pleaded for the sound to be kept down to help workers concentrate on their tasks.
When I asked for the volume to be lowered, unionists circled me with angry looks and made rude and violent gestures.
A simple and polite request to turn down the loudspeakers brought about a menacing mood. The unionists couldn’t believe a simple worker challenged them when even the government dares not tick them off.
Their rally slogan is employment security and a raise in wages to ensure a minimum livelihood. But workers know the ulterior motive. They mumble that the unions have come to collect fees, as if they’re more of a shakedown racket than anything else.
The KCTU wanted management to change a subcontractor. They demanded the work go to a company associated with a union. The livelihoods they were looking after were their own, not the workers on the site.
By witnessing such irregularities and bullying ways, I came to conclude that unions in Korea are on the wrong side. They are still monstrously large and strong. But they are held in contempt by workers on construction sites. They are entirely self-serving and do not represent the rights of actual workers. Activists who are not working in labor are selling a conceptual world. They have become fearless with menacing force backed by political power. But that is why they are becoming less connected than the people they are supposed to be representing and championing: workers.
The Gwangju apartment construction site accident should never have happened. That deadly accident took place due to a critical absence of liability for random job assignments by unions. Such a mishap could never have happened if workers were given the freedom to work with pride, commitment and responsibility to their work.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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