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New labor group to shake up unions

For decades, labor movements in Korea were orchestrated by two umbrella groups, whose views often led to politicized activities rather than efforts for actual labor rights.

Feeling the need for a new labor culture, some of their member unions are moving to create a “third labor alliance” that they say will focus less on politics and more on labor issues.

Taking the lead, the Seoul Metro labor union with some 8,640 members said it will bolt from one of the two umbrella groups with which it was affiliated and seek to launch a third governing body with other like-minded unions some time next month.

The move, likely to be joined by several other large unions including those of Seoul City, Hyundai Heavy Industries and KT, can be seen as a barometer of future labor culture, analysts say.

The labor union of Seoul Metro, which operates subway lines 1 through 4 in Seoul and parts of the adjacent Gyeonggi region, was formerly one of the largest contributors to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the more radical of the two umbrella groups. The KCTU claims about 600,000 members from 740 labor unions across the country, about 150,000 members short of its moderate rival the Federation of Korean Trade Unions.

Of those who took part in the vote on Friday on whether to leave the confederation, more than 53 percent cast yes ballots, also agreeing to the creation of a new labor governing body, the Seoul Metro union said.

“Today’s labor movements are leaning too much toward political ideologies and the vested rights of leaders of the upper bodies,” said Chung Yeon-soo, leader of the unionized Seoul Metro workers. “Our votes call for a brand new organization that focuses on dialogue and practical policies and also does not abandon the key principle of serving the general public.”

The new group “will not regard the government, capital and market as something it must fight against,” the labor union chief added.

At least 200,000 laborers belonging to more than 30 unions are expected to join the new organization, observers say, adding that a new policy to allow multiple unions at a single workplace will bring a considerable number of unionists into the new organization after it takes effect in July.

Citing that the confederation leaders are “excessively confrontational” toward the government and management, a host of labor unions left the second-largest umbrella group last year.

The public has often criticized the two existing groups for ignoring the changes in the Korean labor environment since the 1990s. The overall environment has turned less oppressive toward workers, and new issues such as rights of temporary workers and overtime pay have emerged.

The larger FKTU has been criticized for its “overly close ties” to the government. The radical KCTU, meanwhile, has been slammed for its confrontational stance and militancy that resulted in prolonged strikes and inconveniences for the general public.

“We can all see that neither union was able to adjust to the changes,” an official at the Labor Ministry said, asking not to be named as he was not authorized to represent the government on the issue. “Lots of unions angered at the two groups’ failure to embrace their needs are forecast to join the third group.”

The move to create a third, less politicized and more practical labor group began in 2008 when an alliance called “New Hope Labor Solidarity” was formed with some 120,000 workers from 42 unions.

In a statement three years ago, the solidarity had pledged to focus on transparency issues and make more efforts for cooperative dialogue while avoiding political movements.

“I see it as a highly encouraging sign that labor unions are making voluntary reform efforts to regain public trust,” the Labor Ministry official said.

The potential third alliance, however, must draw a clear policy line instead of a relatively weak political tendency, he added.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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