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Labor Union Plans Strikes

Posted June. 06, 2008 04:27,   


The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has decided to put a general strike to a vote, citing the government’s announcement to resume U.S. beef imports as the reason. It seems to be conducting the vote to take the initiative in labor issues such as public sector reform and revision of the non-regular workers bill at a time when the business-friendly Lee Myung-bak government is being backed into a corner.

Some experts argue that the nation’s left wing, whose influence has significantly weakened since the right wing won both the presidential election and general elections in the wake of the misrule of the Roh Moo-hyun government, has gathered their forces to make a stepping-stone of the recent dispute over beef.

Business circles worry that the nation may experience another vicious cycle of labor issues consisting of illegal strikes, government arbitration, and acceptance of labor demands, unless the government rigidly abides by laws and regulations, instead of yielding to labor unions’ militant strikes.

○ General strikes planned for late June

Given KCTU Chairman Lee Seok-haeng’s remark at the discussion session hosted by the European Union Chamber of Commerce in Korea Thursday, it is not difficult to see what stands behind the KCTU’s vote to decide whether to wage a general strike.

Lee said, “The KCTU believes that we should change and give higher priority to conversation. However, the government and corporations have declined to talk with us and threatened to incapacitate our force. Such an aggressive stance has contributed to worsening labor-management and labor-government relations.”

He added, “The government sets policy for the upper 1 percent of the nation. The Korean market is dominated by large conglomerates. We’ll wage an all-out fight including strikes in late June.”

The nation’s business circles analyze that the KCTU, whose status has weakened since the Lee Myung-bak government took power, is attempting to capitalize on anti-government sentiment resulting from U.S. beef imports and improve its negotiation position by waging general strikes.

According to business circles, the KCTU is attempting to force all industries to accept industry-level negotiation, which is subject to only the auto industry covering four carmakers such as Hyundai Motor Company, and discourage the new government’s public sector reform.

The KCTU also seems to be hoping to take the initiative in dealing with pending labor issues such as the revision of the non-regular workers bill and postponing some issues including unification of the negotiation channels of multiple unions and putting a ban on giving wages to former labor union members, which are slated to be introduced in 2010.

○ Businesses against political strike

Some have expressed their concern that the KCTU’s moves have cooled down the economy, which is already in a slump.

Jeong Jae-hwa, director of the International Trade Research Center belonging to the Korea International Trade Association, said, “The militant strikes of unions is one factor discouraging foreign investment. The fact that the KCTU is planning to wage a vote to decide whether to launch a general strike in order to express its strong opposition against the government’s decision to import U.S. beef will add more psychological burden to foreign investors.”

Some experts argue that the KCTU’s political strike can be considered illegal.

Park Jong-nam, director of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said, “If the KCTU seriously wants to improve labor-management relations, it should not wage a political strike. It should not intervene in international negotiations that are not related with labor issues.”

Experts hold different views over the driving force behind the KCTU’s strikes. KCTU Chairman Lee Seok-haeng reportedly argued in favor of the strike citing that its impact can be maximized if held at a time of high anti-government sentiment. But, KCTU members did not accept the chairman’s argument, citing a lack of driving force.

Executive Director of the Korea Employers Federation Lee Dong-eung said, “According to some experts, even if the KCTU wages a general strike, a lot of members will not participate. Then, their strike will not go beyond being just a demonstration.”

Business circles, which still remember the strike of Doosan Heavy Industries and Construction in 2003, emphasize that the government should strictly deal with issues regarding laws and regulations.

When Doosan workers called a strike, the then-labor minister met with the employees and accepted a considerable portion of the union’s demands, thus heightening expectations of labor unions across the nation and creating a vicious circle of illegal strikes.

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