Building Regional Networks between Labor Unions and Communities in Korea

By Lee, Minjin | Development and Society, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Building Regional Networks between Labor Unions and Communities in Korea


Lee, Minjin, Development and Society


Introduction

The idea of the region has been foreign to Korean labor unions for a long period. The weight of the enterprise union has held sway over the labor movement, but with an increase in non-regular workers and a decrease in union membership after the economic crisis in the end of 1990, labor unions have rethought the importance of regions. Recently, the region has become a major focus for union organizing and activity through two strategic developments. The first is the establishment of regional general unions after 2000. Regional general unions organize workers, regardless of their employment status, on a geographical basis. They address livelihood issues such as quality of life in a region as well as workplace issues so that unions can engage in activities across companies.

The second development, which likewise occurred after 2000, is the transformation of some unions from enterprise into industrial unions. Some industrial unions have become aware of the significance of organizing nonregular and non-member workers on a regional basis and connecting the labor movement with community issues.

A survey of union officials from regional councils of the two national centers (the Federation of Korean Trade Unions and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions) and industrial unions conducted in 2005 by Kim and colleagues found over 80% agreed that the labor movement needed to be supported by regional society. Only a small number of regional councils and industrial unions, however, have been involved in community issues or executed regional projects. Specifically, 28.7 percent of respondents had no experience interacting with "civil society organizations in the region," 68.6 percent had no experience interacting with "local community organizations," 41.4 percent had no experience "expressing their opinion about community issues or involving themselves in community issues," and 66.5 percent had no experience volunteering to clean streets or to help the poor in the region. The majority of union officials thought that the labor movement should develop regional strategies for addressing community issues or forming coalitions with civil society organizations (CSOs) (Kim, Lee, and Jang 2006).

This paper examines three case studies to show how labor unions and community organizations, residents, and local governments in Korea built and developed relationships. The following section looks at the beginning of regional unions and the changes they have undergone. The next section presents my research methods. The third section focuses on how in each of the three cases a regional network was built between labor unions and community organizations, residents, progressive political parties, and local government. The fourth section compares how two sets of regional relationships, those between labor unions or civil society organizations and local governments and those between labor unions and political parties, were built. The section also discusses the effect activities in each of the three cases have had on worker empowerment and the relationship local residents have with labor unions, civil society organizations, and progressive political parties. The concluding section addresses some theoretical implications that the formation and development of regional networks has for the Korean labor movement and civil society.

The Beginning of Regional Unions and Their Change in the Korean Labor Movement

The 1970s saw the beginning of Korea's first regional unions with the establishment of the Cheonggye Clothes Union. With the revision of the Labor Union Law in 1980, however, regional unions were forced to dissolve themselves or lose legitimacy. The situation changed after the Great Labor Struggles of 1987. The Labor Union Law was revised again, and the article that recognized only enterprise unions as legitimate labor unions was deleted. Regional unions were organized vigorously by workers in small companies including printing workers, shoemakers and leather workers. …

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