Academic journal article Development and Society

Changing Cross-Movement Coalitions between Labor Unions and Civil Society Organizations in South Korea

Academic journal article Development and Society

Changing Cross-Movement Coalitions between Labor Unions and Civil Society Organizations in South Korea

Article excerpt

Introduction

South Korea (hereafter Korea) has undergone a compressed transformation over the past five decades. This Asian country has witnessed remarkable societal changes through economic development, political democratization, and the post-modernization of civil society between 1960s and 2000s. As a consequence, the governance of its political economy has transformed from a developmental dictatorship driving compressed industrialization, to the democratized market regime, dominated by the neoliberal policy logic. During the last three decades (from 1980s until the present), in particular, labor unions and civil society movement have shown a diachronic trajectory of ups and downs, whereas the dominance of strong state and big businesses, so-called 'chaebols', has been kept intact in the governance of the Korean political economy.

In the compressed transformation of the country's political economy, three critical junctures exerted crucial influence on the relationship between the state, business and civil society as well as the relationship between labor unions and civil society movements. The first juncture was Tae-Il Chun's selfimmolation, which attracted public attention to the dehumanized situation of the working class in the rapidly industrializing Korea and led civil society organizations (CSO) to begin launching labor activism for protecting and organizing workers. The second one was the political democratization, occurring in 1987, which dismantled the authoritarian regime and produced the burgeoning of labor union and civil society movements. The third one was the economic crisis, taking place in late 1997, which imposed neoliberal restructuring on the national economy, including financial and public sectors, and labor markets. Going through these critical junctures, civil society movements have been diversified over time, and labor unions have shown a relationship of both coalition and contest with civil social movements in demanding the socio-economic reforms and the resolution of workers issues.

This paper sets out to delineate the historical evolution of relationship between labor unions and civil society organizations (CSOs) over the past four decades from the 1970s up to now, and examine what induced substantial changes in the union-CSO relationship, passing through the three critical junctures. The coalition between labor unions and civil society organizations in non-Western developing countries have hardly been explored in the existing English literature. In this light, the case of Korea might be of interest, since the relationship and interaction between labor unions and CSOs have embraced more complicate dynamics in the compressed transformation of its political economy, compared to Western advanced countries. The paper is comprised of four sections, as follows: the next section presents a literature review concerning the relationship between labor unions and civil society movements and indicates focal points of the case analysis. The following three sections covers the historical evolution of the cross-movement coalition between labor activism/unions and CSOs under the three subsequent stages - the developmental state (1970-1987), post-democratization (1987-1997), and neoliberal restructuring (1998 to the present). The concluding section addresses some theoretical implications drawn from this case study.

Literature Review on Cross-movement Relationship between Labor Unions and Civil Society Organizations

A country's political economy regime is chiefly shaped by the interaction and power relationship among key actors of three realms - the political (state and political parties), the economic (businesses), and the societal realms (labor unions and civil social organizations). In the triangular relationship, the state and business actors tend to dominate the governance of the capitalist market regime, while the civil society, represented by a variety of voluntary associations and interest organizations, resists and regulates the dominance of the state and business (Ehrenberg 2002; Urry 1983). …

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