On ATEK, forming a teachers union, and what you can do

A couple of stories about foreign English teachers forming a union made some headlines earlier this month. Some encouraging words from the Korea Herald article:

According to the Yeonsu District Office in Incheon, five natives of English-speaking countries working at a language academy as English teachers received permission for union establishment on Nov. 24.

"The teachers met the requirements for union foundation as they all held work visas and signed up for national health insurance," said an official of the district office.

It was the second time that foreign nationals alone have set up a labor union in Korea.

Back in 2005, a group of English teachers working at an institute in southern Seoul established the nation's first one of its kind.

In the same year, 91 immigrant workers attempted to form a trade union, but the ministry did not approve it as most of them were staying here illegally.

Considering the growing number of English-native teachers and that most of them are contract workers, observers say that more unions will be organized by them.

Yesterday (nine days after the Herald's story broke), ATEK sent out a press release passing on some information regarding legal insurance and how to form a union at your school, if you so choose. From Evan Lloyd, the president of the Incheon school's union:
The second teacher’s union was approved by the Korean authorities on November 24th. This union is the result of months of collaborative action by five Native English Teachers and Jung Bongsoo, an attorney at the Kangnam Labor Law Firm.

We saw the formation of our labor union as the best way to achieve positive, stable and normal working conditions and to improve employee/employer relations.
First off, congrats on starting a union of foreign teachers, and having the courage / interest to see it through to the end. That it's been done twice now means there will hopefully be some publicized guidelines to help a group of teachers do it at their school as well. Supposedly there are laws in Korea against firing someone solely because they're organizing - but then again, there's also laws against pirating DVD's among many other things.

This begins to raise the question of how these unions can either A: work together, or B: help in forming new ones across the country. There's also the question of what role, if any, ATEK will have in their creation or running. As of right now, that role seems limited to information dissemination:
ATEK, which consists of over 1000 members, is a primarily web based support network for foreign teachers in Korea. One of ATEK 's key roles is to collect and distribute information to foreign teachers, primarily information to which they might not otherwise have access. In this instance, ATEK was able to suggest a labor law firm to one of our members which resulted in the firm creating a Legal Assurance package for the member and his co-workers.
Not another hub, please! OK, seriously, ATEK, it took nine days (counting from when the Herald's article posted online) to put together a press release that was mainly the union president talking? You "suggested" a labor law firm - who then took the ball and ran with it, creating a package that they may sell to someone else. The "information to which they [teachers] might not otherwise have access [to]" is freely hosted at http://k-labor.com/tiki-galleries.php on the labor law firm's website.

It may prove to the employer that you're serious about being treated with respect. It might even get enough attention drawn to said school from the government is forced to step in and clean things up. This is still the country where local teacher unions can't always get satisfaction, where protests disrupting the heart of Seoul for months arguably didn't change much, and where foreigners are prohibited from political activity.

If you want to form a union at your school, consider three very important factors before acting:
  • Know what you're getting yourself into. Unions have to be willing to take collective action (e.g. demand, strike) to ensure their threats aren't empty.
  • Unions are, by definition, a group-oriented thing. The teacher that's leaving in two months won't be around to be the group's president, and the teachers just here for a one-year tour may not provide enough stability to keep the group going. You'll need to be unanimous (or at least 90% together) to truly have collective power.
  • A legal victory is not necessarily an actual victory. By the time you've 'won' a judgment against a school, it may be more of a Pyrrhic victory. Being able to collect on it (or garnish some of the school's property) is potentially another uphill battle.
Assuming you've considered these things, it may be time to talk to your fellow teachers. What grievances do they have with the school? Have the issues been brought to the powers-that-be? Is there any indication that said issues might be resolved without forming a union? The union option is much more a final option than the first one to employ, as it will probably require more time and effort than you expect. It's worth the time to air things out, see what can worked out before doing something more serious. That it also permanently changes the relationship between school and teachers must be considered as well.

If you've reached that more serious point, consider calling Jung Bong-soo, the lawyer with the Kangnam Labor Law Firm that got the above-mentioned union started. E-mail [email protected] or use this contact form on their website. I don't know him personally, and I have no idea how his fees work; since they've made it work once before, I would presume they could look back at their notes to facilitate something along the same lines.

Whatever the case may be, there are plenty of options that exist beyond putting up with the status quo. You have to make things work for yourself - just like jobs back in your home country and everywhere else in the world. Don't assume your employer is always looking out for your best interests - and their interests are typically quite different from yours.

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