The Constitutional Court on Thursday ruled that a labour law banning dismissed education workers from joining trade unions was constitutional, effectively nailing the coffin shut for a left-leaning teachers' union fighting to retain its legal status.
The Korea Teachers and Education Workers Union has been engaged in a grueling battle with the government over its legal status since October 2013, when the Labor Ministry decided to outlaw the group for violating a labour law clause that bans dismissed education workers from joining the sector's trade unions.
South Korean law stipulates that all education workers should remain politically neutral, and the main purpose of the clause is to ensure that a teachers' union remains independent from outside influence by excluding noneducation workers.
After the Seoul Administrative Court ruled in favour of the government in June 2014, the KTU sought a comeback by attacking the clause itself. The attempt, however, was to no avail as the court shot down its challenge.
"A teachers' union exercises great influence on the working conditions of education workers. Excluding those who are not directly related to such working conditions cannot be seen as an excessive restriction (on the union)," the court said in its ruling. Furthermore, there aren't any plausible benefits that can be gained from allowing dismissed teachers to become members."
While the KTU has already appealed the administrative court's ruling ― and is likely to take the case to the Supreme Court if the high court also strikes it down ― Thursday's ruling has virtually settled the case, as the contentious clause was the basis on which the government stripped the group of its legal status. Had the clause been ruled unconstitutional, the grounds upon which the administrative court made its ruling would have been removed. The ruling would likely have been overturned on appeal.
If the decision is finalized, the KTU will lose its legal status for the first time since gaining formal status in 1999, 10 years after its foundation. It will subsequently lose all government subsidies while also being relinquished of the right to engage in collective bargaining with the government. All full-time union members of the KTU will also have to return to their teaching posts.
The KTU denounced the decision, saying the Constitutional Court has "turned its back on time" by denying the rights of dismissed teachers to join a union.
"The court has been accused of causing a regression of democracy. It is regretful that today's ruling has done nothing to disprove that opinion," said KTU leader Byeon Seong-ho. "Outlawing a trade union of 60,000 members just because it has nine dismissed workers is unheard of. Nevertheless, we will keep working to acquire our legal status as soon as possible."
The group will release a statement about its specific future plans including legal actions on Monday.
The conservative Park Geun-hye government has rarely seen eye-to-eye with the left-leaning KTU, one of the most outspoken opponents of its education policies.
The rift between the Education Ministry and the KTU was well demonstrated during last week's World Education Forum 2015 in Incheon, when the group was not invited to participate despite being one of two biggest teachers unions in the country. The KTU responded by holding a press conference outside the venue, criticising the ministry for "being hell-bent on self-praise while turning away from the actual education issues."
The teachers' group has urged the judicial authorities as well as the government to "respect the international standards" that they said were to allow dismissed workers from joining trade unions.
"There is no democratic nation that forbids dismissed workers from becoming members of a trade union. As a member of the International Labor Organisation, Korea should abide by the agreement on the freedom of association and the protection of the right to collective organisation," the group said in a press conference Wednesday.
Attempts to outlaw the KTU have sparked negative reactions from outside the country as well.
International Trade Union Confederation and Education International on Thursday requested a permanent injunction of the Labor Ministry's decision to delegalize the KTU. They said each trade union had a "long-recognised right to decide who may be members and eligible for leadership," and that each union's membership rules could reflect those decisions.
"The ILO has clearly stated that the prohibition on dismissed and unemployed workers as members or leaders is a violation of the principles of freedom of association, not merely in the abstract but specifically with regard to Korea. We therefore urge the court to permanently enjoin the Ministry of Employment and Labor as its decision is contrary to international standards," it said.
During the WEF 2015, Education International chief Susan Hopgood urged the government to revise its law to allow dismissed teachers to join unions.
"We think that government should recognise the KTU, stop its action to delegalize the organisation and should respect the rights of teaching unions," she said.