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[Viewpoint] Rethinking of unions is needed
When a clear line is drawn to distinguish the labor movement from politics, both political parties and the labor movement will be well served.
July 31, 2009
The labor movement is going through quite a change. While the government, media and specialists are paying scant attention, the number of independent labor unions that are not affiliated with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), is growing rapidly, threatening the existing structure of the nationwide umbrella organizations.

The independent unions are mostly former members of the KCTU that left the confederation despite severe criticism. And after their withdrawal from the KCTU, they chose not to join the FKTU.

The number of independent union members is dramatically growing. Membership went from 27,000 in 1999 to 89,000 in 2004 and then to 283,000 in 2008. This year, secession from the KCTU has had a domino effect, with 16 labor unions, including the KT Union, leaving the umbrella organization by July. Today, over 300,000 union members belong to independent unions. The independent members make up about 20 percent of the total union membership, increasing by 10-fold in a decade.

It was once accepted wisdom that labor unions working together with the nationwide umbrella organizations would have an edge in negotiations. Nevertheless, many unions wanted independence from the KCTU because members were displeased with the direction the KCTU was pursuing.

Simply put, the KCTU was more interested in the political and social participation of the labor movement than resolving conflicts that workers experience in the field.

Since it wants to promote struggle rather than resolving issues through dialogue, general members have grown to feel estranged from the confederation.

Unless the KCTU and the FKTU become more attuned to the workers that they represent, the number of independent unions will continue to grow. The trend will expand further if multiple unions are allowed next year.

However, the independent unions cannot offer a promising future for the labor movement. Since most workers face insecurity stemming from globalization, they need to pool their forces and respond jointly to challenges. In the meantime, the growing number of independent unions might play a role as a bridge, allowing the labor movement to shed some of its ideological color while making the transition to a new era.

Most of the independent unions that have emerged lately experienced the militant labor movement in the past. They have found faith in a new kind of labor movement that realizes the possibility of coexistence with management. Their workplaces tend to be uninfluenced by external pressure and display stable leadership to build cooperative labor-management relationships that lead to enhanced competitiveness, stable employment and an improved quality of life. Other unions are likely to emulate their success.

Nevertheless, some worry that the increasing number of independent unions might bring results counter to the interests of the working class. The problem should be addressed by creating an environment where independent unions are allowed to return to the nationwide umbrella organizations. The two federations and political parties will need to divide their roles.

First, the political parties should take charge of improving the interests and rights of the working class in political and social areas to make sure the labor organizations are not trapped by political movements.

At the same time, the labor groups should concentrate on improving the wages and working conditions of their members.

The KCTU and FKTU might need to consider merging. The division in the labor movement has no benefit to the workers when employment conditions are worsening. The independent unions are expected to play the role of catalyst by demanding the consolidation of the umbrella organizations.

Moreover, political parties should represent the interests of the working class more aggressively. The rights and interests of the workers should be union priorities. Politicians should be able to firmly request that labor organizations stop if they make unreasonable demands or use violence to attain their goals.

When a clear line is drawn to distinguish the labor movement from politics, both political parties and labor movements will be well served.


*The writer is a professor of economics at Dankook University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.



by Kim Tai-gi
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