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KT Union`s Bolt from Umbrella Group to Rattle Labor

Posted July. 18, 2009 08:14,   


The secession of the KT union from the militant Korea Confederation of Trade Unions is expected to result in big changes in the domestic labor movement. The union of Korea’s top fixed-line telecommunication carrier has some 30,000 members.

The withdrawal is also linked to the proposed establishment of a third umbrella labor organization to champion “rational” labor movements. The proposed body is expected to shift the tactics of Korea’s labor movement from militancy to compromise and alternatives.

○ Impact of the KT union’s secession

The KT union’s secession from the confederation is different from that by another union in that the KT union with nearly 30,000 members was the third-biggest group within the umbrella union. Hyundai Motor is first with 45,000 members and Kia Motors second with 30,500.

The confederation comprises a regional headquarters and 16 trade unions. While the Hyundai and Kia unions are members of the Korea Metal Workers Federation, a key group within the confederation, the KT union is the major force in the country’s IT labor federation. The IT group has 37,000 members, most of whom are with KT.

Thus, the latest secession means a virtual collapse of the confederation’s 16 main federations.

Experts say the secession by such a huge union shows the limit of the confederation’s style of labor movement. In the first half of this year, some 10 unions including those of the Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation and the Incheon Rapid Transit Corp. seceded from the confederation. The umbrella union, however, blamed the withdrawals on issues at each of the companies.

Instead of implementing stringent reform, the confederation threatened to go on general strike rather than seeking compromise and dialogue every time a major labor dispute occurred, including the revision of the law on temporary workers and labor unrest at Ssangyong Motor.

Moreover, the confederation masterminded a truck drivers’ strike over contract termination involving some 30 drivers who worked for Korea Express, the country`s largest logistics. The strike fizzled out in just five days due to indifference among truck drivers, however.

○ Third umbrella union looming

The KT union has not declared the establishment of a third umbrella union to better represent members and tow a moderate reformist line. The general view is, however, that large unions that have seceded or will secede from the confederation will eventually converge when multiple unions at one workplace are allowed next year.

A key figure in the labor community said unions cannot declare the formation of a third group in consideration of their relations with the existing two groups, but are thinking about joining hands afterwards.

The confederation has lost some 10 unions this year. Six unions representing subway workers plan to vote in September whether to form a trade union that will avoid political issues and instead promote members’ welfare.

The labor community views that such moves will lead to the creation of a third umbrella union with the implementation of a new law allowing multiple unions at one workplace.

A senior Labor Ministry official said unions at large workplaces have internal factions struggling for power. The new umbrella union will likely lead dissident factions to form second and third unions, and eventually converge to one umbrella organization.

○ Likely changes in labor movement

A labor activist seeking to form the third umbrella union said, “The new labor movement seeks a union of members, for members that will put priority on members’ welfare.” Instead of waging battles with the government, the new organization will seek resolutions through dialogue and negotiations.

Noting that a union delving into politics is no longer a union, the activist said the new umbrella union will propose alternative views to the government and politicians but will refrain from getting directly involved in politics.

If the new group follows that line, there could be fewer non-labor issues in which the labor community gets involved in, such troop deployment to Iraq and resumption of U.S. beef imports.

The activist said the new group will prove that the labor movement is not all about wielding steel pipes on the street but about talking at the negotiating table.