Cornell University

International Programs

117 Ives Hall, 607-254-7255


May 10 2006

ILR Researchers Collaborate on New Book about Korean Enterprise Unionism

Changwon LeeILR Visiting Fellow Changwon Lee and ILR Professor Sarosh Kuruvilla have co-edited a newly published book, The Transformation of Industrial Relations in Large-size Enterprises in Korea: Appraisals of Korean Enterprise Unionism (Korea Labor Institute, March 2006). This book is a collaborative effort which includes chapters from ILR dean Harry Katz, ILR doctoral student Soonwon Kwon, and ILR Visiting Fellows Dae-Il Kim, Hyorae Cho, and Eul-teo Lee.

Changwon Lee is a senior research fellow at the Korea Labor Institute. Sarosh Kuruvilla is professor of Collective Bargaining, Comparative Industrial Relations, and Southeast Asian Studies. He also serves as faculty director of ILR International Programs.

Sarosh Kuruvilla The following is a preface to the book written by Young-Ki Choi, president of the Korea Labor Institute.

“This collection of original studies aims to examine the characteristics of industrial relations in large companies, which have dominated industrial relations in Korea since 1987, from an international perspective using the multi-level analytical approach. Through a rigorous investigation into the past and present state of industrial relations in Korea, the authors of the various chapters in this volume also seeks to shed some light on the direction of future development of industrial relations in Korea.

In particular, each chapter will focus on explaining the emergence of confrontational and rigid industrial relations accompanies by the predominance of internal labor markets at the enterprise level. The analytical levels that the authors in this volume engaged range from the micro dimension of workers’ characteristics, the meso-dimension of enterprise development and labor movement, the macro dimensions of economic and social development, and all the way up to the supra-macro dimension of international comparison.  

Although there have been many researches that assess the development of Korean industrial relations since 1987 as well as researches that point out the problems of industrial relations in large-size company sector, it is not easy to find studies that systematically analyze the situation from an international and comprehensive perspective that takes the interaction between various dimensions into account. In addition, Korean case was usually dealt as one of the comparison cases in international comparative studies, and as a consequence, the unique conundrum of Korean industrial relations has not been analyzed thoroughly.

For this reason, authors in this volume have carried out an in-depth analysis of the large-size enterprise industrial relations in Korea from multiple stand points elucidating the peculiarities which have evolved in the Korean context as well as the commonalities that Korea shares with other countries on a similar development trajectory.

Through the analysis, we have arrived at an overarching view that industrial relations in Korea which have been dominated by large firms have gradually shifted from a model based on democratic voices to a model based on monopoly effects with some overlapping periods between 1987 and 1997. However, this transition to a dysfunctional model based on market monopoly has become more pronounced since the Asian Economic Crisis as polarizations in the labor market and unions bargaining power by firms size have developed rapidly.

As a consequence of the shift to monopolized market share, employers of large firms could afford to pay high-level wages while maintaining the unprecedented record amount of profits. During this time, the subcontracted firm and workers in those firms were barely surviving the market competition. By the same token, unions in large firms normally diverted their attentions from nonstandard workers who worked in and out of their firms. Moreover, attempts to mobilize industry-level unions to overcome the limits of enterprise unions have often been blocked partly by non-responses from large firm unions.

As they are caught between the continuous indulgence of market privileges and the need to represent collective voice within firms, unions in large firms eventually faced serious status inconsistency; enjoying bargaining power within firms but withdrawing from national leadership of trade union movement. In the following chapters, many authors call for prompt reform of this deadlock caused by the transformation of 1987 regime in industrial relations.

In this volume, Chapter 1 provides an overview of the main issues discussed in the volume and Chapter 8 attempts to sum up the arguments and findings. Other chapters delve into specific issues they raised within the general backgrounds of comparative industrial relations. Despite the divergent emphases, all chapters were written with a common theoretical orientation in that they regard the industrial relations in Korea are institutionally mattered as the environments and strategies of players have been changing.

In addition, taken together, chapters in this volume have shared the view that the current state of industrial relations in Korea, which is characterized by the market domination by the large-size company sector and the militant, politicized, and confrontational enterprise industrial relations is in dire need of reform.

The reform that the authors call for is the kind of reform that aims to achieve an extensive second transformation of Korean industrial relations towards one that is sustainable and create competitive advantages in a global society. In its first transformation centered on large firms, Korean industrial relations had artificially attained its relative stability based on monopoly privileges and increased utilization of nonstandard works. As a result, this temporary hiatus of labor struggles lacks sound and sustainable stability and it sometimes forcefully maintained by employers and unions in large firms squeezing unorganized and less powerful workers in the downstream supply chain.

In my own view, collective voice guided by social welfare concerns and managerial initiatives driven by corporate social responsibility, regardless of the bargaining structure they will arrange in the near future, are the key factors that can shed new light on the enterprise-level industrial relations in Korea.”

March 2006

Young-ki Choi
Korea Labor Institute