Can unions grow in authoritarian political and social environments? The Korean case

Jooyeon Jeong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


In the English-language literature, the prevailing view on Korean unions during the period of economic development of the 1970s attributes the unions' lack of representative capacity as well as their exceptionally slow growth chiefly to constraints imposed by the state-led macro-political environment. However, this article finds that enterprise unions, the primary form in Korea, not only pursued weak to moderate economic unionism, but also recorded a gradual pattern of growth while exhibiting significant diversity like a stable, monopolistic, white-collar enterprise unionism model in the public sector and a precarious blue-collar model within manufacturing industries during that period. That diverse pattern of union growth was repeated and intensified by the explosive growth of enterprise unions following the stable blue-collar model in chaebol large-sized metalworking enterprises, the temporarily thriving blue-collar model in small- and medium-sized metalworking enterprises, and the vigorous but various white-collar model in service industries during the period of political democratization (1987-94). In particular, Korean union growth was not always solely, decisively, and negatively influenced by the state, as presumed in much of the literature. Instead, like their counterparts in several advanced nations, the dissimilar organizational structures and bargaining power of the five enterprise unionism models could be analyzed by several industry- and firm-specific factors, such as growth stages, degree of state regulation, firm size, and economic and social statuses of workers in their respective firms' internal and external labor markets.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)504-521
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Industrial Relations
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2011 Sept


  • comparative industrial relations
  • enterprise unionism in Korea
  • meso- and micro-socioeconomic theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Industrial relations


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