Row over teachers’ union tests Park’s labor policy

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Feb 27, 2013 - 20:43
  • Updated : Feb 27, 2013 - 20:43
A simmering dispute between the government and a progressive teachers’ union over its membership rules poses a major challenge to President Park Geun-hye, who has made healing social divides a top policy goal.

The Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union has defied the Ministry of Employment and Labor’s order to revise its bylaws, which illegally recognize fired educational workers as members.

The ministry warned last week that unless the union complies, it will be deprived of legal status as a registered trade union and the rights to collective bargaining.

The union on Tuesday filed a petition with the National Human Rights Commission claiming the government is infringing on its basic human rights and intervening with the organization’s right to determine its membership standards. 
Members of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union hold a rally against the government before filing a petition to the National Human Rights Commission in Seoul on Tuesday. The union claimed that the government’s order to revise its bylaws that illegally recognize fired teachers as members infringes basic human rights. (Yonhap News)

Park, inaugurated Monday, has remained almost silent over recent labor disputes after she pledged to openly talk with labor unions during her campaign late last year.

“We cannot help but feel infuriated with the government’s plan to re-classify the KTU as unregistered union just because we kept the union membership of 20 illegally fired teachers,” KTU said in a statement.

“The government must stop arrogating administrative power to cancel the registration of the union by linking its call to rewrite the bylaws,” it said.

Current labor law qualifies only employees of a workplace to be union members.

The ministry warned that it would exert its administrative power to re-classify the union and forfeit its rights as a formal labor union including its engagement in legitimate negotiations with the government and local education offices as well as a number of state subsidies.

As the union insisted on maintaining its unlawful practice, the labor ministry said it will brief the president and the Cabinet on the matter and will issue a correction order early next month. The union will be given 30 days to correct its bylaw. Otherwise, it will lose its legal status as a registered union, officials said.

If the ministry cancels the KTU’s registration as a formal labor union, the decision will stimulate other labor groups to take collective action, observers warned.

The KTU said it would collaborate with the Korean Government Employees’ Union (KGEU), an outsider union made up of lower ranked government employees, to protest against the government’s latest crackdown. Already, unionized workers at Ssangyong Motors and Hanjin Heavy Industries have been taking extremely radical actions such as committing suicide and tying themselves to a power transmission tower, demanding the companies rehire laid-off workers.

“Labor groups could become even more radical than before because they feel isolated with society becoming intolerant toward their actions. There is no clear labor policy direction by the Park administration yet. All of these unfavorable conditions are likely to corner laborers into a deadly situation,” an expert said.

Observers also raised concerns that the government will slowly abandon its role as a mediator for labor disputes and focus on job creation instead.

Park pledged that the government will create quality jobs as part of her broad welfare plans. For this, she named Bang Ha-nam, senior researcher at Korea Labor Institute and an academic expert on employment, as minister of employment and labor.

Despite its focus on job creation, the government’s head-on collision with the KTU has forced its way onto the main agenda. Many experts agree that the way the government reacts to the case will determine the entire relationship between the two for the next five years. They said Park also needed to open a communication channel and deliver her vision on labor issues to prevent laborers from making extreme decisions.

By Cho Chung-un (