Tension is rising between the government of President Moon Jae-in and a major umbrella group that had been a strong support base for the liberal president. The situation does not benefit both sides, further straining the economy, which is already suffering from a slowdown and the tightest-ever job market.
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions’ absence at the inaugural meeting Thursday of a new social dialogue body that replaced the tripartite committee is one example of growing tension between the government and the labor group.
The Economic, Social and Labor Council aims to forge a grand social compromise. That the participating parties go beyond traditional members of a tripartite panel -- government, labor and management -- and include women, merchants and small business proprietors demonstrates the council’s ambition to strike a consensus on labor problems and other key social issues.
There is no doubt that the KCTU, one of the two national umbrella union groups, should participate in the council and reflect its members’ positions in agreements to be made. Such a responsibility lies with the KCTU, said Moon’s chief of staff Im Jong-seok.
However, as if to demonstrate its obstinacy, the KCTU staged a general strike one day before the council’s first meeting. It was the union group’s first general strike since November 2016, when it staged a massive walkout to demand the resignation of then-President Park Geun-hye in the midst of a massive corruption and influence-peddling scandal involving her confidante Choi Soon-sil.
On the surface, the KCTU demands recognition of key international labor treaties, giving more irregular workers regular status, and not giving flextime over the 52-hour workweek.
The union group opposes the decision of the Moon government -- made in conjunction with ruling and opposition parties in a Cheong Wa Dae meeting -- to allow some designated businesses to exceed the 52-hour work week for a maximum of three months, as long as the total average hours for the year are within the set limit.
The union group claims the government measure contradicts the reduction of the workweek aimed at preventing overworking. It ignores the reality that there are some who need to put in more workhours in a short period of time for several weeks or months.
What is more worrisome is that the latest KCTU protests underscore its intention to further push the already pro-labor Moon government and gain more concessions.
Although the union group’s pursuit of self-interests is condemnable, politicians and government officials also deserve criticism for being unable to rein in or persuade a group that used to comprise their loyal supporters.
Key aides to Moon have already expressed their frustration with the militant union group. Presidential chief of staff Im said recently that groups like the KCTU and the teachers’ union are “not the weak” in Korean society any longer and that they should share social responsibility.
Prime Minister Lee Nak-youn and ruling party leader Lee Hae-chan -- if not so bluntly -- also expressed concerns about the KCTU’s plan to hold a general strike.
In reality, the government and the ruling party are not taking effective actions to curb the union group, whose arrogance reflects the sentiment that it was behind the victory of Moon in the snap election held in the wake of Park’s impeachment and it deserves a hefty reward.
That the union members are let loose and allowed to raid worksites and even public places like the National Assembly and the state prosecution’s office are examples that show insufficient action is being taken.
Moreover, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon attended a street rally of another major umbrella union group last weekend.
Park, a potential presidential candidate of the ruling party, told the crowd of workers that he would become “a mayor for the workers” and make the city a good place for union activities. In short, a key member of the ruling party gave a pep talk to those who gathered to criticize the government. That is a typical act of individual populism that only emboldens the already wayward union groups.