After a long lunar New Year holiday, ranging from five days to nine days, corporate enterprises are returning to business as usual. But some of them may have to brace for disruptions on their work sites, because the days of industrial peace may be numbered for them.
The reason is that the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, a hitherto nonviolent labor umbrella group, has started to flex its muscles under a new firebrand leadership. Lee Yong-deuk, inaugurated as FKTU chairman on last Tuesday, has repeatedly vowed to set himself apart from his immediate processor and wage a fierce fight against the government as well as corporate employers.
The halcyon days are over for the government and corporations, which have maintained peaceful relations with the FKTU and its member unions. The new FKTU leader has declared an end to the labor group’s alliance in policy with the ruling Grand National Party.
The targets of his campaign are the statutory permission to different groups in the same workplace to establish separate unions beginning in July and the statutory rules on time-off, which went into effect last July.
Though objectionable, it would pose no legal problems if he should launch a peaceful public campaign to have the underlying laws revised in the normal process of legislation. Instead, he says he has no qualms about breaching the law to render the statutory regulations invalid.
The threat may not be mere rhetoric. The new FKTU leader is quoted as saying that, as a man having been sentenced to prison twice in the past, he would not mind being sent to prison for a third time. He is also quoted as saying, “If the previous leadership poured cold water (on labor struggles) on the site, I’ll pour gasoline (on them).”
The new labor leader’s remarks must be all the more disconcerting to the government, given that it had obtained the FKTU’s endorsement when it launched the process of revising the relevant labor laws for the introduction of new rules regarding time-off and multiple unions. His remarks must be also frustrating to corporations where unions are affiliated with the FKTU, instead of the rival militant labor umbrella group, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.
Apparently behind the change in attitude is the FKTU’s fear about becoming impotent in a new labor environment. If the revised rules on organization give birth to an additional union at work sites from July, the FKTU-affiliated unions will have to fight an uphill battle to keep its membership intact. Moreover, disaffected unions, either affiliated with the FKTU or the KCTU, now moving to establish their own nationwide umbrella group, will undoubtedly attempt to ally themselves with new unions.
No matter what drives the FKTU to become belligerent, the government and corporations will have to be prepared for a new labor environment that the new rules on organization are already creating. Closer cooperation will be needed for them now than ever before.
Foremost among the jobs that the government will have to do will be to check inflation. Should consumer prices go out of control, unions will demand huge wage increases. Such a demand, if not accommodated, will be a major source of conflict between labor and management. If that is not resolved, will give rise to labor militancy.
The government will also have to work together with the business community to ensure greater job security. It goes without saying that workers, if concerned about being laid off, are most likely to become confrontational.
The government will have to walk a tightrope to generate a high level of economic growth as a means of providing job security and, at the same time, to keep consumer prices under strict control.