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[Editorial] Industrial unionism

KCTU needs to recalibrate strategy

The Supreme Court has handed down a verdict that could undermine industrial unionism and weaken the influence of the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, the more militant of Korea’s two umbrella labor organizations.

The court ruled Friday that a union affiliated with an industrial union could decide on its own to end the affiliation and convert into an enterprise-based union, if it had “some degree of independence.”

Thus far, unions affiliated with an industrial union have been conceived merely as subordinate entities with no power to change their organizational forms independently. So most of them have been unable to sever their ties with the industrial unions they belonged to and become enterprise unions.

Exceptional cases were those that were affiliated with industrial unions but nevertheless operated fully independently, bargaining with employers on their own and concluding collective agreements without the intervention of the umbrella unions.

The court’s ruling effectively allows chapters of an industrial union to terminate their relationship with it and become enterprise unions.

Justifying its verdict, the court stressed that workers should have the right to decide what organizational form their unions would take and whether to maintain or change it.

From this standpoint, the court recognized the labor union of Valeo Electrical Systems, an automobile component company owned by the Valeo group of France, as an independent enterprise union.

The Valeo union joined the Korean Metal Workers’ Union, one of the most powerful industrial unions in Korea, in 2001. But its members decided in 2010 to withdraw from the KMWU and launched an enterprise union. 

The main reason was the escalation in the labor-management dispute following the KMWU’s intervention. The French group considered withdrawing from Korea altogether.

But KMWU officials filed a suit to nullify the union’s move, asserting that it had no power to make such a decision independently. 

In the first and second trials, the court ruled in favor of the KMWU, saying that the Valeo union could not be seen as an independent union because it relied on the KMWU for wage negotiations and collective agreements.

But the Supreme Court overruled the judgment, saying that a branch of an industrial union should be able to change its form of organization, if it had its own bylaws and executive body. 

The court’s ruling in favor of the Valeo union is expected to weaken industrial unionism, a labor movement that arose in Korea in the wake of the 1997-98 financial crisis. Previously, most unions in Korea were enterprise unions.

The financial crisis led labor leaders to realize the limitations of enterprise-based unions in responding to industrial- and national-level labor issues, such as government-promoted restructuring of ailing industries.

Industrial unionism grew quickly in Korea due in part to the conscious efforts of the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions. Currently, the KCTU consists of about two dozen powerful industrial unions, including the KMWU.

The KCTU denounced the court’s verdict for undermining the foundations of industrial unionism, which it has fostered painstakingly.

But the labor organization has no one to blame but itself for the weakening of industrial unionism. Compared with enterprise unionism, industrial unionism gives workers more leverage in bargaining and collective industrial actions. This has given the KCTU immense clout.

But it has estranged itself from its members by using its power on matters unrelated to the welfare of its members. It needs to recalibrate its strategy to prevent its chapters from breaking away. 
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