Will we march to the Blue House again this year?

▲ Han Ji-won, author of

The president solves it!” “President, let’s meet!”

If you think about it, there have been a lot of rally slogans that have been chanted against the president over the past few years. From workplace-level labor-management relations to amendments to laws under the jurisdiction of the National Assembly and court trials. He asked the president to solve almost every labor problem in the world. Because of this demand, the destination was always near the Blue House, even if there were street rallies. There were also many one-man protests in front of the Blue House. From pickets of labor unions and civic groups to posters containing personal stories. In many cases, dozens of people held a one-man protest with their own demands. what is it It was a landscape that would have been published in textbooks as a photograph that symbolized the times at least once in future generations.

The surge in demands such as asking the president and asking the president to solve it is related to two characteristics of the Moon Jae-in government. First, the Moon Jae-in government was born as a candlelight vigil. As such, he was sensitive to the demands of the streets and trends in public opinion. Second, it pursued reform led by the president. President Moon and the Democratic Party of Korea tried to weaken the power of the conservatives by liquidating corruption. The vanguard of the eradication of corruption had to be the president with ‘imperial power’.

A president who responds sensitively to public opinion and the demands of the streets and uses his imperial power to his heart’s content. It can be said that it is understandable that the labor movement, which suffered under the conservative government, wants to entrust the reform task. For nearly nine years, the labor movement has only shouted “Resign” and “Reproach”. However, after the Moon Jae-in administration, we have been able to talk about “let’s meet” and “solve it”.

So what will be the results in 5 years? In terms of the trade union’s quantitative growth, there have been achievements. The unionization rate rose from 10.3% in 2016 to 14.2% in 2020. The number of union members, which did not exceed 2 million for nearly 30 years, increased to 2.8 million. It was thanks to the fact that the threshold for union membership was considerably lowered after the Moon Jae-in administration.

How about qualitatively? Whether the limit of bargaining by company has been exceeded or whether the rate of unionization of small businesses or non-regular workers has increased can be used as a criterion for qualitative growth. First of all, no significant improvement is reported in terms of initial performance negotiations. From the Economic and Social Development and Labor Committee (Slave Labor Commission) to the COVID-19 social dialogue, it was a series of lameness similar to before. We do not hear any stories that only ‘patterns’ escaped negotiations unlike before. The unionization rate of small business establishments is also stagnant. In 2020, the unionization rate for workplaces with fewer than 100 employees will not be 1%. Compared to 50% with more than 300 people and 70% for the public sector, there is a marked difference. In short, qualitative growth has stagnated even under the Moon Jae-in administration.

What is the reason for the quantitative growth and qualitative stagnation of unions as above? I think it has to do with the problems of the Korean presidential system.

Political scientists define the Korean government system as ‘an imperial presidential system’. ‘Imperial’ means that the power of the president is too great compared to the legislative or local government. Compare that to the US presidential system. The president of the United States cannot introduce laws or make a budget. Even more than a thousand ministers can be appointed only with the consent of the Senate. The powers of the state government are also strong. The provincial governments have all powers except to transfer powers to the federal government. On the other hand, the president of South Korea can not only submit laws and budget proposals, but only a small number of people get approval from the National Assembly. Contrary to the United States, the powers of local governments are limited to some administrative powers transferred to the president.

Since the president is so strong, economic and social organizations, including labor unions, have no choice but to have incentives to solve problems through the president. Institutional resolution through laws or norms requires lengthy negotiations, a long settlement process, and continuous improvement. Once made, it has strengths in fairness and scope, but it is not easy to make. On the other hand, resolution using the presidential authority has the advantage of being faster than anything else. Because you focus on the issues that are causing you pain right now, you can see the results right away.

However, this approach has major side effects. First, the problem-solving method is ‘situational’. It is not about looking at fairness and validity. This is because the president must prioritize and solve problems when public opinion supports it, interests are aligned, voices must be loud, and when politically advantageous. However, this method is advantageous for the elite. Who can drive public opinion, align interests, have a voice in the media, and be flexible in political dealings? They are the social elite. An imperial president often solves the problems of the underprivileged and wraps his powers into a commonplace thing. But in reality, it is always the elites who have more of the imperial power.

The quantitative growth of labor unions under the Moon Jae-in administration was thanks to the merits of the imperial presidential system, which could resolve results quickly and at once. A typical example was the regularization of non-regular workers in the public sector and the subsequent union membership. It was also helpful that the trade unions and industry unions were able to negotiate indirectly with relevant ministries through the pressure of the president. In other words, under the Moon Jae-in administration, the trade union movement centered on large corporations and the public sector enjoyed some elite privileges.

Conversely, the qualitative stagnation of the unions was due to the shortcomings of the imperial power, where problems were solved in favor of the elite. Start-up negotiations that seek universal and institutional solutions are not compatible with imperial solutions. In fact, in the Korean government system, large-scale gatherings in Gwanghwamun can be more effective than social dialogue or industry-wide bargaining. However, workers in small private businesses who have a low voice and cannot engage in political transactions are always in the back row in solving problems using the president. They can exert their bargaining power only if there is a system that can be applied universally, but since the union only seeks the president, it is difficult for the union to obtain benefits from within.

Ahead of the 20th presidential election, candidates stand out with the same solution as before. The president will fix it. Trade unions tend to have an inertial eye on such candidates. However, the more obsessed with solving problems using the president’s imperial power, the more the labor movement will inevitably flock to the Blue House again this year. As we have seen over the past five years, this solution has a huge side effect. Labor unions should develop their capacity to solve problems universally through reform of the presidential system and laws and norms.

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