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Unions behaving badly

June 22,2017
On Wednesday morning, Seoul citizens were greatly irritated when thousands of members of the nation’s construction workers union blocked their commutes by gathering in Gwanghwamun Square, central Seoul. The members of the union affiliated with the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) willfully blocked three lanes of the heavily congested road and marched toward Jongno in downtown Seoul after holding a rally at a small park in the square. The police left them alone, saying they had notified authorities of their plan to rally. But buses had trouble transporting passengers on time, not to mention all the mess around Gwanghuamun Square.

The story does not end there. The chaos from the parade could be the tip of the iceberg given their plans to stage future rallies. The umbrella union KCTU announced it will kick off a large-scale rally and a general strike across the country from June 28 to July 8 after proclaiming the period “a week for a social strike.”

The declaration of war was sparked by Han Sang-gyun, head of the KCTU. Han, who orchestrated a violent rally in downtown Seoul in 2015, has been serving a jail term after the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that found him guilty.

Han sent a letter to the KCTU that urges union members to “push forward a speedy reform at a time when the chaebol, an accomplice in the collusion between politicians and law enforcement agencies and other pillars of the establishment in our society, are all cornered.” Defining the current times as an ideal moment for revamping our society, he went so far as to say, “Our general strike slated for June 30 demands the Moon Jae-in government take responsible measures to meet the call of the times without paying attention to reactions of vested interest groups in our society.”

The rival Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) has joined the bandwagon. In Tuesday’s meeting with the government’s job creation committee headed by President Moon, FKTU President Kim Ju-young pressured the new liberal government to pay back the debt it owes them. Kim pointedly asked if the committee really considers the umbrella union as a partner even though, “We played a crucial role in electing Moon as president in the last election.” He warned that the government should not dismiss the union’s contribution to his election victory.

The two umbrella unions’ demands can hardly earn public sympathy. Their call for government payback for their support in an election cannot be justified no matter what. If they really want to achieve labor reforms — including shifting contract workers onto the permanent payroll and raising the minimum wage — they must make concessions as clearly seen in the Wassenaar Agreement in The Netherlands and Hartz reforms in Germany.

At a volatile time like this, the government must keep a balance. It must take into account the big picture encompassing the labor and corporate sectors and put the brakes on unions’ extreme actions when they go too far — as they did yesterday.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 22, Page 30