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Overcoming Unjustified Strikes by Sticking to Principles

Overcoming Unjustified Strikes by Sticking to Principles

Posted July. 25, 2004 22:08,   


The subway strike, the greatest challenge of this year’s labor “summer strife,” was concluded on Saturday with no lasting consequences after the Busan Subway labor union and management reached a compromise and the Seoul Subway union withdrew from the strike.

In addition, the Seoul National University Hospital union, an umbrella organization of the healthcare workers union, reached an agreement with management on Friday, 44 days after the strike. In all, most companies, excluding LG-Caltex Oil and some other companies, have returned to normal business.

All three parties, the government, labor union and management jointly concluded that “this year’s struggle for wage increases resulted in a soft landing with no extreme disputes due to government’s and management’s strong determination not to allow illegal strikes, and the union’s effort to restrain itself from launching general strikes.”

--From hospitals to subways

This year’s summer strife started with the healthcare workers union’s strike, which was the summer’s first industry-level general strike, demanding management “increase the work force according to the five-day work week” on June 10.

However, with the NLRC’s (National Labor Relations Committee) decision to conditionally defer emergency mediation, the union could be able to continue its legal strike and negotiate with management. With the time granted by the NLRC almost expiring on Friday, both the union and management settled on an industry-level agreement, the main point of which was a 40-hour work week, every other Saturday off, the abolition of monthly days off, and diminishing vacations.

KorAm Bank’s strike, which started on June 25 because of the union’s opposition to the merger of KorAm with Citibank, which brought up the controversy of “the outflow of domestic capital,” escalated into a worst-case situation with the union and management suing each other. Both sides reached a last-minute compromise on July 12, however, 18 days into the strike, by agreeing on key issues such as subsidizing the merger and improving working conditions for underpaid posts.

Even the metal union and auto workers’ unions, which often lead hard-line labor activism, finished their wage and working condition negotiations with no major frictions. The Hyundai Motor Company labor union finished its strike on July 1 after five days, compared to last year’s 42-day strike. Kia Motors, although it suffered a rupture in negotiations, settled a labor deal with the union and lost less productivity than it did last year.

The subway strike, which was the climax of the summer’s labor strife, ended on Saturday after four days, with the union backing down and agreeing to return to work and negotiate later because of the decision of the NLRC to resort to emergency mediation, which put priority on the public good, and was an example of management’s meticulous preparations for a strike.

--Establishment of independent negotiations and punishing unjustified strikes

Unlike last year, the NLRC encouraged independent negotiation between unions and management by deciding on conditional emergency mediation for essential public-interest businesses such as the healthcare workers’ union and the Busan subway.

Although the government restrained itself from intervening in negotiations, it showed firmness by deciding to use the law in illegal strikes such as the SNU hospital, LG-Caltex Oil, and the subway strike, making clear that it would not tolerate unjustified strikes.

Seoul City’s “return to work first, negotiate later” policy worked this time, which was something not seen before in the past. In particular, the subway union decided to end the strike after internal conflict, showing that “a strike for the sake of striking” is no longer acceptable.

Furthermore, the new leadership of the KCTU (Korean Confederation of Trade Unions) received positive reviews after it refrained from annual general strikes and public demonstrations and attempted to lead only legal strikes to reduce the inconvenience of consumers, and stop the unjustified extreme labor strife pushed for by hard-liners.

“During this summer’s labor strife, the wrong negotiating ideas of so called ‘stubborn wins’ or ‘if we unconditionally hold our ground, the government will intervene’ were not effective,” said an official from the Ministry of Labor. “In the future, I think labor and management relations that follow the rule of law will be established under the roof of independent negotiations.”

Jong-Hoon Lee taylor55@donga.com