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[Opinion] Labor Strikes

Posted July. 06, 2003 21:54,   


After the Industrial Revolution in England, labor unions were formed to improve working conditions for exploited workers. They were not guaranteed protection from the law until 1824, however, which means that the history of labor unions is only about 200 years old. This country`s first labor union came into existence in 1898 in Hangyeong Province, where 47 port workers formed a group for insurance purposes. Then came a port laborers` strike and a textile laborers` strike in Busan in the 1920s at the time of Japanese occupation.

The collective actions were an effort to stop the management from cutting their wages. After colonial rule, there was an ideological confrontation between a leftist group called the Council of Korean Trade Unions and its rightist rival the Confederation of Korean Trade Unions. In this regard, this country`s labor movement took the form of an ideological and political standoff from its birth.

A labor union is an organization or an alliance of organizations established to improve working conditions and social status for laborers as defined by the `Trade Union and Trade Relation Arbitration Law`. Collective actions by these organizations including a general strike, therefore, must be in line with these goals. Therefore, strikes are subject to restrictions and limits. Court rules also see strikes aimed to wage a political campaign, exercise influence on management and provide support for other labor unions on strike as illegal.

A series of general strikes held by the Korea Teachers and Education Workers Union, the Cheung Bank Union and the Railway Workers` Union not only failed to file a case in the arbitration committee as required by law, but also stay out of the frame of fundamental goals. The three labor unions took issues out of the introduction of the National Education Information System, managerial control after the merger and passage of the railroad reform bill at the National Assembly. This is seen as irrelevant to labor unions` goals for improving working conditions and workers` status. They are more like political, administrative and managerial issues.

Advanced countries also first adopted hard-stance policies against labor unions before letting them loose and guaranteeing them due protection under the law. They now would rather put more focus on regulations of abuse of labor power. It is not hard to understand that when labor groups stop working for better working conditions and workers` rights, they are bound to lose public support. Labor leaders must keep this simple truth in mind.

Jung Sung-jin, Guest Writer, President of Kookmin University, sjchung@kookmin.ac.kr