Jan. 23  2020
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Industrial Dispute at Catholic Hospitals: "Rule of Law" or Respect for Workers' Rights

The Korean Health and Medical Workers Union has, since its foundation, campaigned to establish a collective bargaining structure and process covering the entire health and medical services sector on sector-wide common concerns.

The current dispute at the three St. Mary's Hospitals and Mokpo Catholic Hospital - industrial dispute at the Catholic Medical Centre - now in 143rd day of strike - stems broadly from two sets of factors: 1) disagreements in collective bargaining agreement and wage negotiations; 2) the impact of "compulsory arbitration" system.

The Korean Health and Medical Workers Union branch in the Catholic Medical Centre presented its demands for this year's round of collective bargaining agreement and wage negotiations in April. The first meeting of negotiations took place on April 10 where the parties adopted a negotiation schedule of 2 sessions of per week.

Union's Demand: the points of disagreement

The Union's demands focused on five areas: provision for industry-wide collective bargaining, employment security and protection related issues, working hours, pension scheme, and wage increase.

The Korean Health and Medical Workers Union has, since its foundation, campaigned to establish a collective bargaining structure and process covering the entire health and medical services sector on sector-wide common concerns. This is held to be vital in harmonising the working conditions of health and medical workers, enhancing the rights of workers, and in consolidating solidarity amongst workers.

The Union has guided the collective bargaining processes in individual hospitals to secure "foot-in-the-door" provisions for sector-wide collective agreement on a limited set of common concerns. The key issues on which the Union wanted to pave the way for a sector-wide collective agreement were: working hours, arrangement for shift/rotation system, criteria for appropriate work load (appropriate level of staffing), public service function of hospitals, and social security matters.

Employment security/protection reflected the union's concern to stem the tide of casualisation of employment and to strengthen the employment security protection for workers with non-standard employment contracts. The union also directed its energies to eliminate various discrimination suffered by "atypical" workers. One key initiative proposed by the union is the establishment of a joint personnel committee.

Another central issue in the negotiations was the pension scheme arrangement. It has become an important issue because the Catholic Medical Centre is legally operated by an education foundation, like other university hospitals. University hospital employees, like other employees of education institutions do not subscribe to the statutory "employment insurance" and "industrial accidents compensation insurance". At the same time, they do not subscribe to the "National Pension Scheme". Instead they belong to an equivalent arrangement, "private sector school employees pension scheme". This scheme, however, differs from the National Pension Scheme in that it also serves as a substitute for statutory "providence allowance" (the delayed 13th month wage paid at the time of termination of employment).

Union has found that the "private sector school employees pension scheme" provides lower level of benefits while, at the same time, denying the "indirect" wage other workers receive through employers' contribution to "employment insurance" and "industrial accidents compensation insurance".

The Union, therefore, developed a proposal for increasing the benefits receivable through the "private sector school employees pension scheme". It called for greater employer contribution to the scheme on behalf of the employees.

The union called on the management to express a commitment to reduce working hours reflecting the imminent change in the law to introduce five day work week. Union's demand did not call for immediate introduction, but for a collective bargaining agreement provision to comply with the anticipated legislative changes.

In terms of wage, the union called for an increase of 11.3%. Later, it was readjusted to 8.2%.

In total of 12 negotiations session from April to the beginning of the strike, the management of the three St. Mary's Hospitals (the branches of the Catholic Medical Centre) refused to consider any of the Union's demands regarding the collective bargaining agreement (i.e., sector-wide collective bargaining provision, employment security protection, pension scheme arrangement, etc.). And on wage increase, the management, on the day before the start of the strike, proposed an increase of 2.6%.

Faced with the stubborn attitude of the management, on May 23, 2002, the Korean Health and Medical Workers Union's branch at the Catholic Medical Centre had no choice but to proceed with the strike.

The "disagreement" over the issues in the collective bargaining agreement negotiations and the frustration felt by the union and its members were the instigating factors in the launching of the strike, and to a degree in the prolonging of the dispute.

Another important factor - perhaps the central factor -- in the intensification of the conflict stems from the mechanism of "compulsory arbitration" and its abuse by the management.

Catholic Management's Attitude: the points of conflict

A key feature of industrial disputes in the "essential public services" - is the aggravation of conflict by the mechanism of "compulsory arbitration".

The Trade Union and Labor Relations Adjustment Act stipulates mandatory "arbitration" for disputes in "essential public services" (if the parties cannot come to an agreement on their own). The Labor Relations Commission conducts a mandatory mediation or "adjustment", lasting 15 days for public services enterprises. Recommendations arising from mediation, however, are not binding on any party. In industrial disputes in non-"essential public services", the conclusion of mediation opens the possibility to take up industrial action, including strike or lock-out. However, for "essential public services", the mediation committee can recommend the chairperson of the Labor Relations Commission to refer the dispute to arbitration, who then can decide to invoke the arbitration process. Once a dispute is referred to arbitration, industrial action is prohibited. The arbitration award produced by an arbitration committee ends the dispute, and the award has the same effect as a collective agreement.

While it is not mandatory for the Labor Relations Commission to refer all disputes at "essential public service" enterprises, the practice so far has proved to be a blanket denial of right to strike for workers in this sector.

As a result of the total absence of "uncertainty" regarding the invocation of "arbitration", the management of enterprises in "essential public services" has developed a habit of foot-dragging in negotiations. They need not exert any effort in negotiating with the union, as they feel assured of an "award" (from the "compulsory arbitration") favourable to the management. The management need not be burdened by a possibility of strike, since it is prohibited once the dispute is referred to arbitration. At the same time, the management knows that "frustrated" union is bound to go into a strike when the negotiation falls apart and the dispute is referred to arbitration. Such a strike is, by definition, according to the law, is illegal. The management can initiate legal action and the police and prosecutorial authorities can also start the criminal proceedings. Union leaders become wanted for arrest, and the management can call on the police to clear out striking workers from the premises. The management can demand and usually obtains "dismissal" of union leaders as a condition for "eventual" conclusion of the dispute. The management - even the Catholic management - knows the law and the state are on their side.

This is what happened!

The mandatory non-binding mediation by the Labor Relations Commission concluded in the evening of May 22, 2002, on the eve of the planned strike. The mediation committee concluded that the positions of the two parties to the dispute were so wide apart that it could not arrive at a recommendation. It recommended the management and the union to engage in further negotiations.

Soon after the conclusion of the mediation proceedings, the Union called on the management to resume negotiations to avoid the strike planned for the next day. The management responded, one and a half hours before the deadline for the strike that it would not come to a negotiation when union members were gathered in readiness to go on strike.

Some time between the termination of the mediation process and the start of the strike, the mediation committee advised the chairperson of the National Labor Relations Commission to refer the dispute to "arbitration", and the chairperson - perhaps being informed that the Catholic management had no intention of going on with further negotiations and the strike was inevitable -- invoked the arbitration proceedings.

At 7 a.m., May 23, workers of the Catholic Medical Centre began the strike. At no time after the termination of the mediation process and the invocation of the arbitration proceedings, did the management show any urgency to negotiate with the union. (In a strike at a hospital, the union always guarantees the staffing of the emergency and essential function of the hospital, including scaled down staffing for in-patient service.)

On May 25, on the third day of the strike, police delivered summons for union leaders. On May 28, on the sixth day of the strike, warrants of arrest were issued out against 6 leaders of the Union leaders at the Catholic Medical Centre branch.

In the limited negotiations -- initiated by and insisted on by the Union -- during this period, the management refused to consider any of the major collective agreement matters. (It did better its wage proposal.) In these meetings, the management was more concerned about making clear to the union that it was absolutely determined to undertake disciplinary actions and legal actions against the union leaders.

On June 5, 14th day of the strike and the 15th day since the invocation of arbitration, the National Labor Relations Commission produced an award of 7.4% wage increase. However, on matters of key collective agreement demands, such as the reform of the pension scheme arrangement and the establishment of personnel committee, it concluded that these matters were not within the jurisdiction of arbitration proceedings.

In response to the union's proposal to resume negotiations, the management declared that there was no need for any further negotiations as an arbitration was awarded. All that was needed, the management asserted, was to let the legal and prosecutorial process to take its course as the union's strike was illegal. The management demanded the union leaders to submit statements expressing an appeal for forgiveness as a precondition for a meeting between the union and the management.

The management pushed ahead with disciplinary proceedings. In total, 573 union members have been referred to disciplinary proceedings. The management has already issued dismissal notices to 20 key union leaders.

The management conducted an active attack on the strike and the union. It issued numerous statements denouncing the union, distributing them publicly, including the patients. In its May 31 leaflet, the management described the union members on strike as "murderers".

When some striking union members returned to work due to economic difficulties brought about by suspension of wage payment during the strike, they were coerced to withdraw their membership in the union. The management has resorted also to telephoning the family members of the striking unionists that they face dismissal if they continue with the strike.

No serious negotiation over the issues which brought about the dispute took place following the award of arbitration. Numerous formal proposals by the union for meetings to resume the negotiations were rejected by the management, until the police raid on September 11.

The Law Has Spoken and Acted: "we are bound to comply with it!"

The typical attitude and tendency of the management of enterprises in "essential public services" of "hiding" behind "compulsory arbitration" -- demonstrating the absence of a commitment to negotiated settlement -- is proved once again in the current dispute as the central impediment to constructive industrial relations.

It has been aggravated by a strange commitment by the clerical managers of the Catholic hospitals and leaders of the Catholic Church to "comply" with the law.

The management the Catholic hospitals seem to hold the position that an "illegal" action - that is, going on a strike against the stipulation of the compulsory arbitration system - should not be tolerated by agreeing to negotiations. The Catholic management has repeatedly pointed out that the law has spoken - in the form of arbitration award - therefore it was in no position to go against it or side step it by engaging in further negotiations or by agreeing to a settlement that is different from what the law has delivered. As if this would constitute an "illegal" action, violating what the law has to say.

The clerical leaders of the Catholic Church responsible for the hospital operation have demonstrated a peculiar reliance on the dictates of the law, rather than commitment to the spirit of respect for rights and patience to work towards the resolution of disputes through dialogue.

"Send in the troops!" The Law is Unleashed with the Catholic Acquiescence

On September 11, 3,000 strong police stormed the striking workers at the hospitals. When challenged, the police produced an official letter issued by the Catholic hospital's management allowing the police to enter into the hospital premises for law and order operation. The police chased fleeing workers all the way into the hospital chapel, dragging out crying women workers who in desperation were holding onto crucifix at the altar of the chapel. Over 200 striking women workers were taken away in the police raid. 7 union leaders were later formally charged and imprisoned.

Since the police raid, the management of the Catholic hospitals refused all proposals by the Union to meet to resume the negotiations to end the dispute. Instead, it has revved up the disciplinary proceedings, including giving out dismissal notices. And, confident that it has succeeded in evicting the union out of the hospitals, it has begun to hire new staff to replace the striking workers.

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