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Our power-crazy unions

June 23,2018
Compared to 1987, when the democratization movement peaked, Korean laborers now have an entirely different status. The national umbrella labor unions no longer stand for the weak. They have become powerful political forces. Among incumbent lawmakers, 23 were labor activists, of which six are seated on the Environment and Labor Committee that oversees labor-related legislation. They are also active in the administration. The employment and labor minister, the chair of the tripartite committee of the government, labor and employers, and the vice chair of the presidential committee on job creation have also been recruited from ranks of former labor activists.

The progressive government has been decisively pro-labor. The reforms under the previous conservative government aimed at raising flexibility in the labor market such as a performance-based salary system were killed after the new government was inaugurated. The administration trotted out one labor-friendly policy after another: upgrading contract workers to the permanent payroll, raising the minimum wage and cutting working hours. It ignored complaints from the companies.

And yet the labor front is unsatisfied. Union groups immediately protested and threatened a general strike after the government announced a six-month moratorium on the imposition of a shorter, 52-hour workweek to cushion the shock on employers. A cut in the workweek by 16 hours brings greater challenges to smaller companies. Unions have the power to bargain for shorter working hours without any effect on their paychecks. But companies nevertheless would have to adjust production to sustain cost levels or increased hiring. Lesser yields also translate into less work for subcontractors and parts suppliers. The militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions criticized the government for neglecting laborers. But the “laborers” it refers to are really big unions.

The two union groups also vowed to boycott meetings with the minimum wage committee or tripartite committee, rejecting any adjustments to the minimum wage policy to ease the burden on small manufacturers, merchants and business owners. Again, unions of large or public enterprises with job security can receive all the benefits from a higher minimum wage. But employees from the wholesale and retail sector and lodging, and restaurants industry are losing jobs because their employers cannot afford higher labor costs. Their attitudes even drew criticism from ruling Democratic Party floor leader, Hong Yong-pyo, who used to be a labor activist. “The goal of pushing up the minimum wage must take into account the economic conditions. But the unions are demanding the lift regardless of the negative impact,” he said in an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo. “Expanding the scope of the wage base is a practical solution to lessen the burden on employers, but the unions are making outrageous claims that we are out to steal their future wages.” The government should turn its attention to young people hopelessly searching for jobs.

JoongAng Sunday, June 23, Page 34