That the government has broken its promises as well as lost the public’s trust is a given. However, assuming that the unions and their student supporters are nothing more than unfortunate victims is the pinnacle of naiveté.
Regardless of one’s political inclinations, everyone must recognize the unions’ right to exist, as well as the AYAR Movement’s support for the unions, as it is guaranteed by the Republic of Korea Constitution in Article 21, Section 1, which states:
All citizens shall enjoy freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of assembly and association.
However, it has to remembered that a right cannot and must not violate the rights of others. Any right that does so ceases to be a right and instead becomes a privilege that can only be guaranteed through violence.
Furthermore, it must also be remembered that the Korea Railroad Corporation (KORAIL) is a government-owned corporation, which is funded by government subsidies. It also has to be remembered that the government has no money of its own. The only source of funds that the government has is its tax revenue and its mint.
As such, this state-run rail operator’s labor union is a public union, a union that has successfully managed to compel KORAIL to pay out bonus payments and raise employees’ wages by more than five percent every year since 2005 despite the fact that the company was posting an average annual operating loss of US$470 million. KORAIL’s debt is currently estimated to be around US$17 billion. This debt is expected to reach ₩50 trillion (US$47 billion) by 2020.
Only a public-sector industry can limp along for as long as KORAIL has while paying wages and bonuses that it cannot afford without being forced to declare bankruptcy.
Although we have to wait until the dust settles, which could take a long while, before it can be calculated how much the union’s strike is costing the overall economy, it is already estimated to have reached into the millions of dollars, and could potentially reach into the billions.
Essentially, this monopolistic public union of a monopolistic government-owned corporation has once again decided to hold the public hostage in order to guarantee that its members can continue to hold on to their iron rice bowls at the taxpayers’ expense.
The union, along with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), as well as the AYAR students have attempted to paint their strike against the government as a battle between the People and the Police State. For reasons that have already been mentioned in my previous post and its near-fascistic use of the police to arrest union workers, the government has all but ensured complete alienation from the people.
The unions, for their own part, are reliving their glory days. Since the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, union memberships have continuously fallen with the exception of those in the civil service, which has actually seen an increase in membership (surprise, surprise). However, thanks to President Park Geun-hye’s spectacularly mediocre ability at governance, the unions have come roaring back to life as they have been given the perfect excuse to appear to be resisting against a dictatorship; just as they had done in the 1970s and 80s.
Despite all of the Park administration’s faults, and they are legion, it is not a dictatorship. Nor is there even a real threat of a return to dictatorship. Any contrary claim is hyperbolic speech. But its incompetence has given the impression of a return to the bad old days. This impression was all that the unions needed.
We have to take note that the main thrust of the unions’ argument is that they are opposed to the privatization of KORAIL. This is despite the government’s (frustratingly) repeated insistence that it has no plans to privatize KORAIL and its promise to revoke the proposed subsidiary’s rail service license if its stakes are ever sold to private investors.
We also have to take note that the unions seldom ever talk about the aforementioned numbers. It cannot afford to do so unless it wishes to lose the people’s sympathies. Any prolonged mentioning of economic realities will not do the unions any favors. As a result, the unions continue to obfuscate the numbers and have gamed the narrative as an ideological battle.
As far as the unions are concerned, this is not a fight about how much their salaries and benefits are costing (or will cost) the taxpayers but rather about how President Park is trying to force her right-wing, anti-union agenda at the expense of the working class.
What the unions are NOT saying is that they feel they are entitled to continue to suckle on the teat of the taxpayers in order to preserve their iron rice bowls; damn the fact that the business they work for is a bottomless money pit.
We have to keep in mind that neither the unions’ nor the AYAR Movement’s message is about freedom against a dictatorship – as was the case in the 1970s and 80s. What they are calling for is the maintenance of the broken status quo. The unions have claimed that they are fighting for their families and that they are champions of the working class, but at the end of the day, what they want is for the taxpayers to continue to pay up. Damn the consequences and damn the ethics!
The KORAIL union’s successful attempt at conscripting the aid of the rest of the unions under the KCTU umbrella is a cynical ploy to fool the people into believing that they are one and the same despite the fundamental difference between private and public-sector unions. That is because the public-sector union workers do not have a leg to stand on without the aid of private-sector unions.
Although union strikes have the same goal in mind, the main distinction between private and public unions is that private sector unions cannot make unreasonable demands of their employers. The best example of this is what had occurred in General Motors Korea (GMK). During the summer, GMK workers went on a partial strike to demand a raise in their monthly salaries as well as for a one-time bonus payment of ₩6 million each.
GMK workers have since been forced to learn that there are consequences to their actions when it was recently reported that General Motors plans to reduce its workforce in Korea. There is also increased speculation that one of the reasons that General Motors may eventually shut down its operations in Korea is due to Korea’s frustrating labor environment.
On the other hand, public-sector unions are under no such constraint. KORAIL is a monopolistic government-owned corporation. Although not unheard of, governments are much less likely to end up in bankruptcy court than privately owned businesses. As such, public sector unions can hold the government and the taxpayers hostage with relative impunity.
If the government refuses to give in to their demands, which will either force the government to go further into debt (which increases the risk of government insolvency) or raise taxes or borrow from future generations, the unions either slow down or shut down essential(?) government functions through strikes. Unsurprisingly, the unions then lay the blame on conservative politicians.
There is nothing to suggest that the students behind the AYAR Movement are in cahoots with the public sector union. For all intents and purposes, despite the claims about not being oblivious about politics or economics, it seems that the university students are not, in fact, fully aware of the facts. Filled with energy and rosy ideals, it would appear that the students, both pro-union and pro-government, are once again being used as pawns in a political battle whose outcome, either way, will not be helpful to them.
The Occupy Movement started with grand hopes and ideals. For all their hopes and ideals, however, they lacked the insightful knowledge about politics or economics that they claimed to possess. As a result, just like the Tea Party Movement was hijacked by Republican operatives, the Occupy Movement was hijacked by Democratic operatives. If history is any indicator of what is to come, it would seem that the progressive AYAR Movement, as well as its as yet unnamed conservative counterpart, is destined to become part of the political machine, too.
What a shame that would be for everyone.
(Next and final installment: Choosing Sides)
(Next and final installment: Choosing Sides)