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[Editorial] Big change in labor

Labor-management relations will undergo a drastic change, with multiple trade unions set to be permitted in the same workplace next month. Moreover, a group of trade unions are set to launch a new nationwide umbrella group as their representative ― possibly later this month.

Unions and corporate employers will have to brace for one of the greatest transformations in labor ― at both the national and enterprise levels ― since Korea gained membership of the International Labor Organization in 1991. This will bring into prominence the role of the government, which will have to help reconcile their conflicting interests as an honest broker.

Thirteen years have passed since the rival parties agreed on the introduction of multiple trade unions at the recommendation of the ILO. But permission to workers at the same worksite to organize separate unions has been delayed for fear of its unfathomable impact on the Korean economy. It is yet to be seen whether or not the statutory requirement for separate unions to select one among themselves as their bargaining representative will serve as a safety valve as intended.

It is absurd to put groups of workers in pursuit of their separate interests under one roof, as is the case now. For instance, white-collar and blue-collar workers have no other choice than to join the same union though they may wish to promote conflicting agendas in negotiations with management. It is also unreasonable for workers that are disaffected with the existing union to be banned from organizing a separate union. These problems will be addressed when an amendment to the law on trade unions and labor relations goes into effect on July 1.

One key issue of conflict will remain unresolved, though. Labor activists demand that different unions be allowed to have separate negotiations with the management. But corporate employers are adamant in their opposition to this demand. Their rationale is that management would be bogged down with bargaining all year round if separate negotiations were to be permitted.

With no easy compromise in sight, both labor and management will do well to shelve the thorny issue for now and focus on adapting themselves to the changes to be brought about by the introduction of multiple unions. For instance, an unbridled contest for the position of bargaining representative may cause an unintended disruption in the work process. As such, the existing unions will have to ponder what relations they will seek to have with new entrants. For its part, the management will have to develop a new standard operating procedure that it will need in dealing with multiple unions.

A new umbrella group, when established, will certainly weaken the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and, to a lesser extent, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions. The unions of Seoul Metro, Hyundai Heavy Industries and KT and some others have recently deserted the KCTU, the more radical of the two, to create their own nationwide group.

According to one estimate, the number of unionized workers under its wing, claimed to be 590,000 at its peak, will have dropped by 150,000 to 200,000 when the new group is established. For the losses, the KCTU has no one else but itself to blame. It has long been accused of engaging in anti-government and other politicized activities, instead of striving to serve the interests of its member unions.

Labor-management relations are basically adversarial. This cannot be denied. Even so, unions and corporate employers cannot remain confrontational all the time. Both need to resolve conflicts, promote dialogue and seek compromises for mutual benefits. As such, they are called on to make greater efforts in this regard at a time when multiple unions are permitted at the same workplace and the creation of a new umbrella group is being promoted. Industrial peace thus achieved will be of a great benefit to the entire nation.
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