Development, Education and the Teachers Union Movement in South Korea, 1989-1999

By Synott, John | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Development, Education and the Teachers Union Movement in South Korea, 1989-1999


Synott, John, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


A New Cycle in Industrial Relations in South Korean Education

In July 1999 the Korean Teachers Union (KTU) (Chunkyojo) was formally recognised as a trade union, following the enactment of legislation passed in January 1999 that allowed teachers to form trade unions. This act broke the long-held policy of prohibiting civil servants to form trade unions and came in the wake of industrial reforms brought on by the Korean economic crisis in 1997. The newly legitimised group originally called the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union, Chunkyojo, had formed in 1989 and waged a ten-year struggle with successive governments for legislative and educational reforms. The decision to legalise teacher unions was one of the gains of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, under whose umbrella Chunkyojo is located, in the negotiations with President Kim Dae Jung over industrial restructuring, particularly the rationalisation of labour in industry following Korea's economic crisis. It was one of the more unexpected aspects of negotiations, involving one group of workers -- teachers -- who were not directly involved in the restructuring of the South Korean economy to satisfy the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout conditions. In a real sense, the issue of the legitimisation of Chunkyojo was a bargaining chip used by the FKTU in exchange for other reforms in heavy industry and manufacturing sectors of the economy.

The Korean Herald 8 August 1999,(1) reported that the newly legalised teachers union was to enter into direct negotiations with the government on 16 August, but that such negotiations were confined to a narrow range of industrial issues, like wages, working conditions and teachers' welfare. Other matters to do with educational policy, such as class sizes, curricula and professional aspects of teachers were legally defined as the domain of the Korean Federation of Teachers Associations (KFTA) (Gyochong), a government-sponsored body that has been in existence since 1949. The KFTA also has the legal approval to negotiate on wages, a right which it gained under the new legislation, against the wish of the Ministry of Education. Thus, the situation can be summarised as there being two major legal representative bodies for teachers in Korea, one of whom can sue for policy and professional reforms as well as industrial matters, while the other is restricted to negotiating for limited industrial goals.

Although recognised as unions, both bodies nevertheless are denied the right to collective industrial actions like strikes and work slowdowns. Both the KFTA and Chunkyojo are registered with Education International, the international association of teachers unions and, indeed, the Chunkyojo representative now holds a place on the executive committee of Education International. It will come as no surprise to learn that the two groups representing teachers in Korea are strongly opposed to each other. The KFTA was established in 1949 essentially as a school principals group to carry out government policy, while Chunkyojo is a true grassroots movement. The decision to restrict Chunkyojo's actions to limited industrial claims was a blow to a movement that emerged on a platform of comprehensive reform to the school system and curricula, while the enhanced empowerment of the KFTA was salt to the wounds of Chunkyojo and can be seen as an example of how industrial restructuring in Korea to meet IMF demands has been cosmetic rather than substantial and has, in this case, subtly strengthened the hand of entrenched powers that have long opposed significant reforms. The Korean Herald article cited an unnamed analyst's comment there was likely to be division and confrontation between teachers from the KTU and the KFTA "over issues surrounding school operation and other educational policies". In the twelve months since then Chunkyojo has concentrated on strengthening membership at school levels and working to dispel fears of wary teachers about joining a group that for a decade was outcast, confrontational and frequently depicted by the government as communist-aligned. …

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