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[Editorial] A Union Leader Korea Needs

Posted November. 14, 2008 00:56,   


Kim Hong-ryul, union leader of Kolon Industries’ plant in Gumi, South Gyeongsang Province, has been at the forefront of the company`s cost-cutting drive since early this year. When the company`s goal of cutting 7.6 billion won (5.6 U.S. million dollars) in costs was going nowhere due to soaring commodity prices, he rolled up his sleeves. When he voluntarily took up a task often considered a job for management, union members blasted him as being "out of his mind." He never flinched, however, saying, "If my insanity helps the company and makes employees better off, I will willingly go insane." He ended up saving the company six billion won (4.4 million dollars) by setting up a team to recycle waste heat. He also cut business travel expenses and the number of meetings. Thanks to his efforts, Kolon expects annual savings of 8.6 billion won (6.3 million dollars), one billion won (739,000 dollars) more than the initial amount.

The union at the Gumi plant was once a militant entity representing the textile industry. After spearheading a walkout in 2004, Kim realized that only when the company is sound and healthy can the union exist and job security be guaranteed. After that, he achieved job security in 2006 and last year in return for wage freezes.

A crisis in manufacturing is a crisis in employment. Manufacturing in Korea accounts for 27.8 percent of GDP, higher than Japan’s (21 percent) and Germany’s (22.6 percent). If the industry tumbles, the financial sector will falter. Japan lifted itself out of its "lost decade" largely due to the efforts of manufacturing workers to produce top-class products.

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, who garnered the support of United Auto Workers in the election, is reportedly doing his utmost to rescue the auto industry, which employs up to 36 percent of American workers. Emphasizing mutual survival between management and labor, he also said CEOs should refrain from taking millions of dollars in bonuses while cutting healthcare benefits for employees. In the same manner, he said, “Union leaders must share the burden of employers in surviving competition.”

With the job market slumping and offices full of temporary workers, the specter of massive layoffs is looming. In this dire situation, those with permanent jobs should consider themselves fortunate. Hopefully many more "insane" workers like union leader Kim can emerge from among those fortunate to help turn around companies and create more jobs. For their part, employers should exert their entrepreneurial abilities to help more workers have Kim’s mindset. When management, labor and the government produce more Kims, the country can ride out the economic turbulence.