The capitalist system has been utilizing the tactic of workplace fissuring to weaken the organizing power and bargaining position of US unions. This has led to a decline in worker’s ability to negotiate fair wages and benefits. However, as an alternative strategy, unions have begun to adopt multi-employer bargaining in order to rebuild worker power. This approach involves a group of unions coming together to negotiate with a group of employers in a specific industry, thus allowing them to set industry-wide standards for wages and benefits, eliminating competition on labor costs. This in turn allows unions to maintain more independence and power in negotiations, as well as greater solidarity with more precarious groups of workers.
Despite this increased interest, there is a paucity of empirical research on the effectiveness of multi-employer bargaining. While some studies have looked at the relationship between the level of bargaining and overall wage inequality, there is a lack of research on how multi-employer bargaining is associated with solidarity at the workplace level. My recent publication “Lopsided inclusion: The impact of multi-employer bargaining and class-based unionism on non-regular employment in South Korea” aims to fill this gap in knowledge.
This paper examines recent bargaining centralization led by Korean union confederations amid increasing labor market flexibility. I show that multi-employer bargaining increases the likelihood that a workplace union would address a pay increase for workers on precarious employment contracts (non-regular workers) when the union was affiliated with a confederation espousing class-based as opposed to business-unionism. However, such a relationship was weaker for temporary agency workers (TAWs) and subcontractors than for direct-hire fixed-term workers (FTWs). Through in-depth interviews and archival research, I identify two factors that characterize the class-based confederation: (1) centralized pressure from the union and (2) activists and their identity work.
The case of South Korea
Historically, the process of collective bargaining in Korea has been carried out at the level of individual companies, with each firm negotiating with its own union. However, in recent years, there has been a growing movement towards multi-employer bargaining. This shift was triggered by government policies implemented following the Asian financial crisis of 1998, which aimed to make labor markets more flexible and provide fewer employment protections. These policies have led to a significant increase in non-regular employment. In response, union leaders have been advocating for a reform in industrial relations institutions by implementing a centralized bargaining structure that brings together multiple companies within a specific sector or industry. They believed that this approach would promote equal pay within and across companies, protect non-regular workers and limit the use of precarious labor.
The labor movement in Korea is characterized by the presence of two major national union confederations: the FKTU (Federation of Korean Trade Unions) and the KCTU (Korean Confederation of Trade Unions). These confederations have distinct identities and approaches to negotiation and bargaining with the government and employers. The FKTU is often seen as more moderate and pragmatic, with roots in business unionism. Under the authoritarian regime in the 1970s and 1980s, many unions affiliated with the FKTU were company unions sponsored by management and the state. Even after democratization in 1987, the FKTU continued to pursue a conciliatory approach. On the other hand, the KCTU was established in the 1990s by a group of radical union leaders explicitly critical of the FKTU. The KCTU emphasizes the independence of organized labor and its doctrine is to work towards a unified movement of the working class: working-class unionism. Its unions have taken a more proactive and often militant approach to negotiating with the government and employers, tending to demonstrate greater bargaining power and strike leverage.
Despite these distinct historical roots and identities, both confederations have converged on a formal strategy regarding the structure of bargaining. Multi-employer bargaining has long been a prominent approach used by the KCTU, with its affiliated unions engaging in this type of bargaining across a variety of industries. The FKTU’s policy position on this was initially ambiguous, but as a result of public criticism and ideological rivalry, it also moved towards a centralized bargaining system. However, my analysis of national representative workplace survey data from Korea shows that the KCTU has been more successful in encouraging its affiliates to represent non-regular workers through multi-employer bargaining in recent years. Specifically, multi-employer bargaining increases the likelihood that a union will address pay increases for non-regular workers when the union is affiliated with the KCTU.
One possible reason for this is the difference in how the two national confederations influence the strategies of local unions. While the FKTU has a more decentralized approach, with a lack of authority over its affiliates and expecting them to be “self-sufficient” during their bargaining phase, the KCTU has a more centralized decision-making procedure. Local bargaining contracts must be approved by the national office of an industrial/sectoral union or its president and those mid-level unions are expected to be in constant communication with the confederation leadership. Furthermore, the KCTU has a more explicit focus on working-class solidarity, which is reinforced by the bureaucratic pressure from the leadership and the strong class-based identity of its activists, many of whom have experience in the democratization movement in the 1980s or leftist student activism at colleges in the 1990s. They deeply engage in shopfloor union life to develop shared norms and goals corresponding to national union strategies. As the KCTU members have been more frequently exposed to the idea of working-class solidarity through this kind of ‘identity work’, they have been pulled into more solidaristic actions.
This approach has not benefited all types of non-regular workers equally. Specifically, TAWs, as well as subcontractors, benefit less from multi-employer bargaining compared to FTWs. This suggests that KCTU’s push for class-based solidarity has not been as inclusive as it should be, which I refer to as ‘lopsided inclusion.’ This can be explained by the fact that TAWs and subcontractors are mediated by staffing agencies or subcontractors, and are not considered formal employees by the firm. Therefore, the employer does not have a legal obligation to address their wages and benefits. Even though they are subject to directive control of the firm in terms of how to perform their tasks, the employer does not have a legal obligation to address their wages and benefits. There are also some challenges on extending a bargaining agreement including employer resistance and lack of support from unions.
Both the FKTU and the KCTU unions have sought to circumvent these institutional constraints, by pressuring employers to directly hire TAWs or organizing a separate chapter to organize and bargain for non-regular workers, such as through a tripartite bargaining session involving all stakeholders to jointly determine pay and working conditions.
Lessons for the US
In the US, there have been several instances of multi-employer bargaining, such as in the building trades and railroads, as well as in the transportation industry. The most recent example is California’s AB 257 or The FAST Recovery Act, which is a recent state-level legislation that incorporates the concept of sectoral bargaining. So technically speaking, sectoral bargaining is not prohibited under the NLRA. Yet, since the NLRA does not properly address its legality, employer participation in multi-employer bargaining is primarily on a voluntary basis.
Several labor experts call for policy reforms such as amending NLRA to include more robust protection for class-wide organizing and concerted action and new mandates for multi-employer bargaining. It is important to be mindful of the debate in that regard. Larry Cohen (former president of CWA) holds that sectoral bargaining is a highly effective way to remove competition on labor costs within a specific market or industry. Veena Dubal (law professor at UC Hastings) argues that the recent attempts to implement sectoral bargaining in California and New York have been detrimental to workers, particularly those in the gig economy. These proposals would have sacrificed important rights and protections for workers in exchange for simpler union representation and negotiations with companies like Uber and Lyft.
I think there is a way to reconcile the difference between the two logics. As I argued above, while multi-employer bargaining is important, it is not enough to empower workers. A strong class-based identity is a crucial underpinning. And more importantly, we need activists who have the ability to instill a sense of solidarity and foster workplace militancy. The implementation of an inclusive bargaining structure in conjunction with workplace militancy may not impede the advancement of better protections for workers.
Dongwoo Park is a PhD student at Cornell University’s ILR School. His research focuses on comparative employment relations and political economy.
This article is adapted from Dongwoo Park, “Lopsided inclusion: The impact of multi-employer bargaining and class-based unionism on non-regular employment in South Korea.” British Journal of Industrial Relations, published online December 23, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1111/bjir.12725.
Image by rabble via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)