Union Politics in the Segmented Workplace

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
TW1.3.04 (Tower One)
Hyunji Kwon, Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea, The Republic of
Byung-hoon Lee, Chung-Ang University, Seoul, South Korea
Sukbum Hong, Chung-ang University, Seoul, South Korea
Workplace is highly political arena and it has been increasingly so over the last few decades. Tension within the workplace is not only created by employer-employee relationship but by the relationship between different employee groups. While employers seem to be successful in diversifying the sources of employer-employee conflict by segmenting workforce, unions do not look competent in coordinating the heterogeneity among stratified workers in, as David Weil(2014) puts it, the fissured workplace. In fact, the structural changes in conjunction with weakening unions have put many unions in a very difficult position, and thus union-centered workplace solidarity seems to become less attainable.

According to a recent stream of literature, unions tend to become an insiders’ advocate limiting their bargaining leverage to protecting insiders’ – namely organized regular employees –interests. A growing body of research has documented the issue of limited union representation in the context of the insider-outsider divide in contemporary labor markets (Rueda 2005, Heery 2009, Häusermann and Schwander 2010, Eichhorst and Marx 2011, Emmenegger 2012, Hassel 2012). Despite being insightful, the literature tends to view the unions’ bias and abandonment of its position as a universal workers’ organization as an inevitable consequence of the structural divide within the working class. In fact, it often ignores the processes in which unions might become selective. In addition, studies in this stream attempt to understand the insider-outsider divide in the context of the union partisan coalition. This does not greatly helpful to explain the divide in countries where industrial relations institutions are highly decentralized and have a weak linkage with partisanship.

This longitudinal case study aims to explain a large firm union’s constant failure of integrating marginal workers in post-crisis Korea since the late 1990s. Focusing on the micro-politics within the workpalce, this study highlights the process how the union politics of exclusion could gradually emerge. This study also pays attention to the aspect that union’s position towards unorganized contract workers within the workplace has not been always straightforward unlike what the insider-outsider politics research suggests. As our study shows, the large enterprise union that once enjoyed the iconic status of the social movement unionism in Korea has been walking thin line between its own members and contract workers working side by side one another, bearing the dilemmatic burdens of satisfying the members’ desire for short-term economic gain on one hand and the external expectation of improving eqaulity on the other. The union however has ended up in failure to integrate the contract workers as well as the new contract workers’ union. We are trying to interpret this key union's failure as a result of a course of action that generally lacked an internal mecahnism of coordination rather than viewing it as an expected outcome caused by the segmented structure of workplace per se. We will also show how institutional factors including court decisions and government policies on worker protection in vertical disintegration have affected the relationship between the unions in the same workplace and its consequences in the process.