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[Editorial] Union restructuring

The Seoul Subway Union’s exit last week from the “Minju Nochong,” a radical national umbrella union, and its leaders’ move to form a third national union herald drastic changes in the nation’s labor movement. Up to now, labor activities have long been competitively swayed by the two national bodies: Minju Nochong (the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions) and Hanguk Nochong (the Federation of Korean Trade Unions).

Promoters of a third union, who include unionists at the Hyundai Shipbuilding and Heavy Industry, say they reject political campaigns and only pursue practical interests of workers. “We do not antagonize the capital, the market or the systems,” said Jeong Yeon-su, head of the Seoul Subway Union. An SSU statement said that labor movements had until now “denied the market economy and fomented conflicts and confrontations under anachronistic pro-North Korean socialist ideas.”

Yet, the existing unions criticize the promoters of a new national-level union as abandoning the original mission of the labor movement, which are to protect the rights of workers, whether employed or not. “We wonder how a union made up of highly-paid employees at stable workplaces can speak for so many irregular workers and other unprotected laborers,” an FKTU official said.

The emergence of a supposedly moderate third union group must be a welcome development for the managements of the member companies. But it promises to stir the nation’s labor scenes as the two older federations will seek to dominate in one way or another. Further complicating the matter will be the new system of multiple unions at a workplace under the revised labor law that takes effect on July 1.

Certainly, the time has come for a restructuring of Korea’s labor movement after decades of highly politicized union activities. Such struggles proved unprofitable for both workers and management. Radical labor actions were largely the work of politically-oriented union leaders, who have increasingly lost ground as average union members became aware of their rights and the way they can best exercise them for maximum economic gains.

As the Seoul Subway Union blows the bullhorn, some other unions will follow suit. If they admit it is a time for transition, the nation’s labor activists will review their mode of operations and the ultimate values they should seek through collective action. In doing so, they should be reminded that the good citizens of the nation hope they will never again see steel pipes, bamboo spears and petrol bombs at labor rallies in the future.