The Korea Herald


Hopes and fears for multiple unions

By 이선영

Published : June 28, 2011 - 20:31

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Long-standing ban on plural unions at company level to be lifted Friday

Following is the first in a two-part series featuring multiple labor unions that will be introduced in Korea on Friday. ― Ed.

After 13 years of hesitation, Korea is finally easing its iron-fisted labor union policy to allow more than one trade union at a single workplace, a move widely expected to open a new page in the country’s often-confrontational labor-management relations.

Under a revised labor law, which goes into effect Friday, employees can freely set up labor unions no matter how many there are at a work site.

They still have to choose a single channel when they enter negotiations with management.

“The government is committed to successful implementation of the multiple-trade-union scheme, which we believe will upgrade the country’s industrial relations to the next level,” Labor Minister Lee Chae-pil said in a recent forum in Seoul.

The government says that the measure will guarantee workers’ freedom of association on a larger level and will lead to increase union membership, which stood at around 10 percent last year.

“Under the revised law, two persons are enough to establish a labor union,” Kim Sung-ho, an official at the ministry, said.

The ministry expects 400 to 500 new unions to be founded over the next 12 months, adding to the total in 2009 of 4,689.

The Korea Labor Institute projected that at about 7 to 14 percent of workplaces, employees will set up new unions.

The new measure is also expected to remove a major hurdle for workers at union-free companies like Samsung Electronics and POSCO to unionize.

Samsung and POSCO have maintained a “no labor union” policy so far by establishing a pro-management, or “ghost” labor union, thereby blocking the creation of the real ones.

Kim Yong-hoon, chief of the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, the more militant of the nation’s two umbrella labor groups, said at a press briefing: “We will work to see a real labor union rise at Samsung at the earliest possible date.”

The workers’ right to organize plural unions has been a norm in many industrialized countries, but Korea has delayed adoption of it for more than a decade amid public concerns that militant labor unions are a major stumbling bloc to economic growth.

The International Labor Organization recommended to the Korean government 11 times since the country joined it in 1991 that it should permit multiple trade unions at the enterprise level.

In 1997, the Korean parliament amended the labor law to lift the ban, which was imposed in 1963 under the military regime of Park Chung-hee. It took 13 years to implement the multiple-union system due to differences among government, labor and management about the details.

All disputes related to the new measure, however, are not over yet.

Labor groups oppose the part that the bargaining right is given to only one representative union, not to all unions.

Under the new law, workers should choose one union which will negotiate with management. In case of discord, a union that represents a majority of the company’s total unionized workforce is entitled to lead the negotiations. If no group has more than half of the unionists, groups with more than a 10 percent share should form a joint committee.

Unionists complain that such a rule could serve to limit smaller groups’ right to bargain collectively.

The KCTU has filed a petition with the Constitutional Court to review the rule, while opposition politicians submitted a revision bill to do away with it.

The government is firm that the single negotiation channel rule is essential to shielding local companies from a sharp rise in labor relations costs, should plural unions be allowed at a single workplace.

Employers, for their part, fear that more unions could lead to more heated labor struggles. Competing for members, unions could engage in labor strife more often, in order to show off their negotiating clout, they worry.

Some members of the conservative ruling Grand National Party has submitted a bill to restrict plural unions at company level again.

By Lee Sun-young (