Two events scheduled for later this month illustrate problems with the nation’s labor activism. The first is the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions’ plan to stage a general strike on Nov. 21. The other is a social dialogue event the following day that the KCTU has decided to boycott.
The KCTU, the more radical of the two largest national umbrella unions, has called the general strike in an effort to achieve, among other things, the revision of labor laws, the elimination of contingent jobs, the overhaul of the national pension system, a stronger social security net and the reform of the family-controlled chaebol.
The strike is ill-advised in many respects. First of all, most of the demands the group has put forward are already being addressed by the pro-labor Moon administration. For instance, a strong government push resulted in the conversion of a considerable number of irregular jobs to regular ones at public enterprises and large companies, and the legal minimum wage has risen at a record-high pace.
Besides, the Korean economy cannot afford a massive walkout or severe labor dispute. Major economic indicators, including growth rate projections, are heading down and key industries like automobile manufacturing and shipbuilding are struggling with weak demand and low productivity.
Add to these the dismal job market, especially for younger people, and the negative impact of the minimum wage hike and reduction of working hours on small businesspeople, self-employed people and merchants.
Public criticism over the planned strike is intensifying, as many believe the KCTU is ignoring the unfavorable economic situation in pursuit of its own vested interests. This is especially true in the wake of recent scandals in which public enterprises, large firms and banks were found to have hired relatives of employees and union members.
The KCTU’s decision to stay away from the Economic, Social and Labor Council is adding fuel to the criticism. It is not the first time the KCTU has spurned a call for social dialogue.
But the decision has drawn rebukes even from allies, including the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and far-left Justice Party as well as senior administration officials. Presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok, speaking in a parliamentary auditing session of Cheong Wa Dae, declared the KCTU is “not the weak any longer.”
Such criticism is well founded. The launch of the council is already long overdue, since the National Assembly passed the relevant legislation more than five months ago.
Moreover, the council is no mere copycat of the tripartite committee composed of labor, management and government representation that dates back to the 1997-1998 Asian foreign exchange crisis.
In addition to usual labor issues, such as the creation of decent jobs, the protection of worker safety and labor-management relations, the council has agreed to tackle many other matters that deeply affect Korean society.
Indeed, each of the items on the council’s agenda is crucial for the nation and urgently requires national consensus. To name just a few, it will discuss how to cope with bipolarization, the low birthrate and an aging society; the reform of the national pension system; and the need for a stronger social safety net.
It is against this backdrop that the council opened its doors to contingent workers, women, young people, small business proprietors and merchants -- in addition to representatives of labor, management and government. In short, the council is a different kind of social dialogue body than past tripartite panels.
The KCTU, as one of two pillars of the nation’s labor movement, has an obligation to participate in the council and reflect its views and policies in the envisaged agreements. We emphasize this because any agreement made by the council without the consent or support of a major labor group would face uncertainty.
Kim Myeong-hwan, who assumed KCTU leadership one year ago, proclaimed “a KCTU supported by the people” as his campaign slogan. He must have borne in mind the negative public views of the union caused by its hard-line activities. But the views will not change unless he exercises leadership to steer his group in a more sensible, responsible direction.