The Korea Herald


[News Focus] What's really driving Yoon's war on unions?

Prosecutor-turned-president wants to teach rule-breaking unions a lesson, but some fear worst labor crackdown in years

By No Kyung-min

Published : June 12, 2023 - 16:00

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Members of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions chant slogans during a press conference in front of the presidential office in Seoul on June 8. (Yonhap) Members of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions chant slogans during a press conference in front of the presidential office in Seoul on June 8. (Yonhap)


Last week, South Korea’s largest umbrella union declared a boycott of the country’s tripartite social dialogue channel, declaring an "all-out war" against what they called the “anti-labor” administration of President Yoon Suk Yeol.

The decision by the Federation of Korean Trade Unions has effectively struck down the Economic, Social and Labor Council, as it has been the sole labor representative in the presidential consultative body for labor policy discussions.

“We refuse to beg for dialogue with a government that refuses to recognize us as a legitimate dialogue partner,” FKTU chair Kim Dong-myung told a press conference Thursday.

In a separate interview, he left open the possibility of joining forces with the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions to form a united front against the Yoon administration. KCTU is the smaller and more militant of Korea’s two umbrella unions which has not participated in social dialogue since 1999.

If an anti-government alliance materializes between the two, which together represent 83 percent of all unionized workers in Korea, it would portend a fresh crisis in Korea’s deteriorating labor relations.


Reform or crackdown?


The trigger behind the FKTU’s move was the police crackdown on May 31 of a protest outside a facility belonging to steel giant Posco's in Gwangyang, South Jeolla Province. Officers moved in to remove Kim Joon-young, an FKTU leader, who was on top of a 7-meter tower erected in the road, after he began throwing objects at police below. Kim was injured, along with several police officers, in the struggle that followed. The group claims the police’s use of force was excessive.

The Gwangyang incident was among a growing list of similar events in which authorities clashed with protesters -- mostly unionized workers and labor activists -- after police mobilized forces to disperse their unauthorized rallies.

Rallies, however, are just one of the many areas where organized labor have faced increased scrutiny under the Yoon administration.

From accounting transparency issues to alleged illegal practices aimed at securing exclusive benefits for members and even accusations of espionage for North Korea, unions and their members have been under multiple government and police inspections over the past months.

What is to unions an onslaught of offensives, however, is to Yoon a necessary, overdue reform.

The conservative president, who was formerly the chief public prosecutor, made clear on several occasions his determination to eradicate corruption and irregularities in the “big, political labor” through the rule of law.

In his criticism of unions in the construction industry, Yoon went as far as coining a new term, “geonpok,” or "construction violence" to draw a parallel between union actions and organized crime.

“At construction sites, systematic illegal activities, including violence and extortion, are being carried out by labor unions,” he said at a Feb. 21 Cabinet meeting, where he introduced the new coinage.

On Labor Day, an official of a KCTU-affiliated construction workers’ union surnamed Yang set himself on fire in front of a court in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, ahead of his scheduled detention hearing. He faced charges of obstructing business operations and coercion for forcing employers to hire union members. He died the following day.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea said he was among over 1,000 construction union officials across the country that had been investigated for alleged illegal activities described by Yoon as geonpok.


Politics behind union bashing


President Yoon Suk Yeol presides over a Cabinet meeting in Yongsan, Seoul, on Feb. 21 during which he harshly criticized the President Yoon Suk Yeol presides over a Cabinet meeting in Yongsan, Seoul, on Feb. 21 during which he harshly criticized the "widespread and systemic" illegal practices of labor unions in the construction industry. (Yonhap)

Prior to assuming the presidential seat, Yoon was in the spotlight for his remarks on working hours.

"Workers should be able to work 120 hours a week, if they need to, and then take a deep rest," he suggested in an interview with a local daily in July 2021. His proposal would translate to seven consecutive 17-hour days. Korea’s weekly working hours limit is set at 52 hours.

In March, when the Labor Ministry proposed increasing flexibility in the current system to allow a maximum of 69 hours in a single week, as long as weekly working time averaged less than 52 hours, massive public backlash followed, dealing a blow to the president’s already dismal job approval ratings.

But, when it came to labor unions, the public’s response was different: Yoon’s ratings saw an uptick whenever he stuck to a hard-line stance on issues like their accounting transparency, illegal industrial action and rallies, and what Yoon described as unfair and unlawful practices aimed at protecting their own vested interests.

“The public, at least a portion of them, seems to share Yoon’s view of taking issue with labor union practices,” said Shin Yul, a political science professor of Myongji University.

Not just conservative, but moderate voters generally don’t hold favorable views on the country’s powerful labor unions, he explained.

A 2021 survey, conducted by the Korea Institute of Public Administration, showed that the public’s confidence in labor unions stands at 47.8 percent, lower than big corporations or the central government which recorded 56.7 percent and 56 percent, respectively.

One significant critique of the unions is that they predominantly advocate for the interests of well-off workers at the largest corporations, particularly those who hold permanent positions.

Government data shows that the union organization rate at workplaces with 300 or more employees stands at 46 percent, while just 0.2 percent of employees at workplaces with less than 30 employees are unionized. The figure for workplaces with 30-99 employees stands at 1.6 percent.

Yoon, while pushing for the anti-union drive, did not fail to highlight that.

“Labor unions clinging to their vested rights are tantamount to acts of plunder, depriving young generations of future opportunities and hopes,” he said.

Opposition parties say the president is “demonizing” labor unions for his own political gain.

“By bashing unions, the president is trying to avert the public’s attention away from his own failure in state management,” said Democratic Party chair Lee Jae-myung.

Lee Eun-joo, a vice spokesperson for far-left minority Justice Party, criticized the president for disregarding the social function of labor unions.

“Workers, too, are voters. But Yoon continues to try wooing voters by showing hostility toward labor unions and treating them like a group of criminals,” Lee said.



Members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions take part in a rally near Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul on May 1. (No Kyung-min/ The Korea Herald) Members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions take part in a rally near Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul on May 1. (No Kyung-min/ The Korea Herald)


What the future holds

Even with labor relations dipping to a fresh low, Yoon’s office has kept up with its anti-union rhetoric.

"The guiding principle in the government’s labor relations policy is the rule of law, and there will not be any compromise made just to maintain the functionality of the Economic, Social, and Labor Council," the office said after the FKTU announced its boycott of the council.

The FKTU chief, when asked about the conditions for a return to dialogue, said it was not just about the Gwangyang incident or the injured union executive’s arrest.

“Fundamentally, President Yoon needs to show us that he recognizes and respects workers as a dialogue partner,” FKTU chief Kim Dong-myung said.

Kim Jong-jin, a senior research fellow at think tank Korea Labor and Society Institute, emphasized the role of the government in handling labor issues.

“The FKTU’s decision to cut off communication in the trilateral panel will have significant repercussions for the Yoon administration as negotiations with the labor union are essential in achieving the government’s labor-related agenda,” he told The Korea Herald.

He added that there are pressing matters that require immediate attention, particularly the coming negotiations for next year’s legal minimum wage.

The minimum wage commission is composed of nine members each from labor, business and the general public. FKTU executive Kim who was injured and arrested held one of the labor’s nine seats.

"Labor unions endorse certain aspects of the Yoon administration's labor agenda, such as advocating for extended days of parental leave and revising the Labor Standards Act for companies with fewer than five employees," said the researcher Kim from the think tank.

"It is crucial that the government assumes its role as a mediator between labor and management, as we find ourselves at a critical juncture where the well-being of the nation's workforce is at stake."