The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, which pursues obviously leftist ideologies and frequently uses violence at rallies, is exerting its greater influence after becoming the nation’s largest union group.
The group is said to have recently asked the Ministry of Employment and Labor to allocate more seats to it than to its less militant rival on a ministry committee to be launched next month.
The confederation became South Korea’s largest labor group with 968,000 members, overtaking the 935,000-member Federation of Korean Trade Unions, according to the ministry late last year. The KCTU only outnumbers the FKTU by about 33,000 members, but considering its alliance with militant leftist civic groups, its political influence is much more powerful.
The committee will decide issues regarding indefinite contract workers in the public sector. The workers are not civil servants but were guaranteed the same retirement age, benefits and allowances as public officials after being converted to regulars under President Moon Jae-in’s policy to get rid of all irregular positions.
Shortly after the ministry announced on Dec. 25 that the KCTU had become the biggest union group in Korea, it demanded the government adjust its share of seats on the government committees where it has a voice.
The emergence of the confederation as the No. 1 union group is cause for concern rather than hope.
The group has pushed the labor movement, ignoring its damage to the market and companies. It has habitually called for strikes and has had its own way prominently under President Moon, who pledged to respect workers.
For example, Hyundai Motor union members often made the people raise their eyebrows with their unreasonable and egoistic demands despite the fact that their annual wages totaled as much as 100 million won ($85,600) on average, a level envied by most blue-collar workers.
Recently they refused to work overtime because the carmaker said it would turn off Wi-Fi on the assembly line, where they occasionally accessed it to watch videos on their smartphones while working.
The confederation has led a general strike by highly paid operators of large tower cranes on construction sites, demanding that builders stop working with nonunionized operators of small tower cranes.
It pressured the administration to implement policies palatable to it, apparently under the pretext that it had strongly supported Moon during the last presidential campaign.
The administration appears to have tried to avoid angering the confederation. It raised the minimum wage sharply and reduced the workweek, causing serious side effects. KCTU members staged violent demonstrations, sometimes beating up police officers who tried to block illegal marches and messing up a shareholders meeting venue. But the government responded passively, and those arrested for violence received only a slap on the wrist.
As a result, companies were demotivated and, to make matters worse, shackled with multiple layers of regulations drawn up to meet labor demands. The government’s pledge for deregulation was just rhetoric.
While the moderate federation takes part in the government-led Economic, Social & Labor Council, the confederation boycotts it, demanding one-on-one dialogue with the government. The council has so far managed to operate thanks to the FKTU. Now that the KCTU is Korea’s No. 1 labor group, its pressure on the government will likely be stronger.
Unlike bygone days when the labor movement was suppressed by the military dictatorship, today the growing political influence of unions is arousing more concern than hope of better working conditions. If the confederation pushes political struggles such as calling for the withdrawal of US forces from Korea and the abolition of the national security law, the entire society, not to mention industrial sites, will fall into a maelstrom of conflicts and confusion.
As the largest union group in Korea, it must try to act more responsibly. It should be more cooperative in resolving economic and labor issues facing the nation and refrain from holding fast to selfish demands.
The labor group is not disadvantaged anymore. Rather, it has become part of the establishment. If it wants to ease economic inequality, as it has clamored about doing, it must concede some of its vested interests for the sake of other workers and society as a whole. Violent actions must have no place in its movement. More importantly, the government should not let it behave tyrannically. It must demand responsibility and concessions from the group.