A 'Third National Center' in South Korea?

In November of last year, the Korean Labor Unions Confederation .KLUC) was founded as a so-called 'third national center' in South Korea next to the progressive Korean Confederation of Trade Unions .KCTU) and the conservative Federation of Korean Trade Unions .FKTU). The KLUC's president, Yeon-su Jeong, who is also president of the Seoul Subway Labor Union .SSLU), promotes a 'new form of unionism' based on labor-capital cooperation to increase productivity. Criticizing the KCTU's "excessively ideological orientation", and both the KCTU and the FKTU's "bureaucratic nature," Jeong claims that the KLUC's philosophy is more in line with the perspective of ordinary Korean citizens.

Since its establishment, however, the KLUC has been fraught with controversy. Progressive forces criticize it as the 'MB .Myung-bak) union'. Indeed, Jeong, along with 747 former KCTU officers, publically proclaimed his support for then Grand National Party presidential candidate Myung-bak Lee in 2007. The KLUC was formed, moreover, with significant support from the Lee administration in the wake of the FKTU's break with Lee's New Frontier Party .NFP, the successor to the Grand National Party) and formation of a strategic alliance with the liberal opposition United Democratic Party .successor to the Democratic Party). The KLUC receives government subsidies, and has been granted seats on tripartite committees by the administration behind the backs of the other two national centers. Strong suspicions also exist that KLUC officers gave financial support to government officials responsible for illegal surveillance of KCTU and FKTU leaders. Critics claim that the KLUC was formed, not so much to represent the interests of union members as to serve as a NFP tool for co-opting the labor movement and a means for Jeong to pursue his political ambitions.

With at most 40,000 members, the KLUC is currently much smaller than the other two national centers, which both have memberships of several hundred thousand. The SLLU, which has 8700 members, is currently the KLUC's largest affiliate. Two other large unions, Hyundai Heavy Industries and KT, which were expected to affiliate to the KLUC last year, have failed to do so.

Perhaps, most significantly, several court rulings have called into question the legality of the SSLU's affiliation to KLUC and with it, Jeong's position as president. In April of last year, 53% of SSLU members vote to leave the KCTU and affiliate to the KLUC. The Ministry of Employment and Labor found the vote fair and permitted the SSLU to switch affiliations. A group of SSLU members, however, filed as suit against the decision, arguing that changing affiliations means a revision of the union's constitution and, thus, requires approval by a two-thirds majority. In October 2011, a lower court ruled that the change of affiliations was invalid. This July, an appeals court upheld the decision. A final ruling by the Supreme Court is expected next year.

According to one SSLU delegate, the appeals court verdict has given strength to KCTU supporters within the SSLU. At the same time, more and more SSLU members are becoming frustrated with Yeon-su Jeong's unilateral style. Pro-KCTU delegates are using this opportunity to talk about the nature of the KLUC and the likelihood that Jeong's policy of 'labor-capital cooperation' will lead to "emphasis on results, performance evaluation and competition .between workers), destroying the sense of community between colleagues." They are also reflecting on the fact that the shortcomings of the KCTU in becoming a true symbol of democracy and in protecting rank-and-file members against capital's attack, as well as their own failure educate their colleagues about the character and significance of the various national centers, drove some members to seek a new path in the KLUC.

Commenting on the current state of the SSLU, the same delegate made the following remarks: "The Supreme Court decision may be helpful in the defense of our democratic .KCTU-affiliated) union, but it will not be decisive. Rather, it is how democratic .pro-KCTU) forces .within the SSLU) conduct ourselves, and the vision we put forth that will be most important. We have not yet been able to fully regroup or become fully active. But we are currently evaluating our past limitations, while beginning to build worksite committees to put a new vision into practice. Our goal is to make it possible for a democratic leadership to win the union election in December. If this happens efforts to build the KLUC will weaken or naturally die out completely."

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