New labor unions are mushrooming at companies following the enforcement on July 1 of the law allowing multiple unions in a single workplace. According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, a total of 130 new labor unions were created during the first five days.
The pace is faster than expected. Many labor experts expected the formation of new unions would be slow in the initial period due to the strong influence of the two powerful umbrella unions, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions.
But many new unions were set up in workplaces that are controlled by members of the two umbrella groups. Of the 130 new unions, 56 were established at KCTU-affiliated work sites, and 47 were formed at companies with unions that are members of the FKTU.
The rush to establish new unions in these workplaces reflects the failure of the existing KCTU- and FKTU-affiliated unions to address worker dissatisfaction. It is no secret that many members of the KCTU or FKTU unions are fed up with the unions’ tendency to focus on political struggles in disregard of worker welfare.
Worker dissatisfaction with the two umbrella unions is also evidenced by the fact that 119 of the 130 newly established unions have chosen to remain independent from the two organizations.
The emergence of these new unions signals that the Korean labor movement has entered a new era. Under the new law, multiple unions at a single company are required to select one representative union that will be in charge of collective bargaining with management. If the unions fail to agree on a representative union, the union with the largest membership would become the representative.
This means unions in a workplace have to compete to attract more members. On the plus side, competition among unions will contribute to enhancement of worker welfare. But there is also the danger of too much competition between labor unions complicating labor-management relations.
Thus, a multiple union system can work both ways. It can either benefit or harm workers, companies, and the national economy. How it operates depends on the capability of the parties involved to handle it. Therefore, the government, labor and management ought to make concerted efforts to ensure that the new system works in a constructive way.