Unions lead fight against tyranny

By Huang Jui-ming 黃瑞明, Taipei Times, Saturday 14 June 2003, Page 8

First it was Wu Kui-ching (吳桂慶), who died when he slammed into the Ministry of Transportation and Communications building on May 15 with a load of gasoline in his truck, and then it was Wu Chao-jen (吳朝仁), who sustained severe burns from setting himself on fire after driving into a traffic police squad in Keelung on June 2. Due to these incidents, we see clearly that the state, in its greed and insensitivity, is not above randomly issuing traffic tickets in order to raise funds, thus forcing many people to face the torment of choosing between life and death.

Due to the media’s enthusiastic reporting, authorities with the right to influence traffic policies are beginning to feel the pressure of public opinion—it seems the Legislative Yuan will amend relevant legislation, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications may review administrative orders, the National Police Administration will restrain its officers and local governments will decrease the part of their budgets made up for by fines. There is now hope that the cannibalistic legal system will become a bit more restrictive. Society will take a small step forward, but at the cost of two lives.

Is human sacrifice really necessary to achieve social progress?

In Western democracies, social progress may be achieved through the workings of the system. The ruled organize social associations to initiate bottom-up politics in order to force the ruler to implement reform. Labor unions are the most important of these groups.

Unions are political interest groups. To reflect the wishes of grassroots members, they lobby legislators or use demonstrations or strikes as means of political mobilization, often becoming a catalyst for social progress. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters in the US, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and Germany’s Vereinte Diensfleistungsgewerkschaft (ver.di) are two prime examples.

Theoretically speaking, our drivers are also organized. Be it truck drivers or taxi drivers, they often join a drivers’ union. Before the two tragedies, however, drivers’ unions had never publicly complained about traffic policies. This seems to imply that their unions do not manifest themselves very well in society.

This is also the reality—just like the other more than 3,000 different professional unions that exist in this country, the main task of the drivers’ unions is merely to help their members register for labor and health insurance. They collect the insurance and membership fees every six months, transfer the former to the labor and health insurance organizations, and use the latter to arrange group activities such as trips or scholarships.

Apart from this, unions have no other duties worth mentioning. They function as labor or health insurance offices, and outsiders also call them labor insurance unions. Such unions could well be called an international miracle. Even though membership numbers may reach into the thousands, unions have never developed into political lobbies, concentrating the collective strength of their members to force the ministry into adjusting the policy of severe punishment that everyone is so concerned over, or abolishing the anachronistic fleet system.

The authorities know better than anyone that professional unions are fraught with problems. During the KMT era, the Council of Labor Affairs discussed large-scale reform of unions. In the end, however, nothing happened due to political considerations. The council did not want to offend vested interests because union officials were important vote-get-ters during campaigns. On the other hand, it was happy to see unions remain weak so that they would not oppose the authorities. Following the DPP’s accession to power, the council has been even less willing to broach reforms.

Another reason drivers’ unions are not more active lies with the drivers themselves. Because the political environment has been hostile toward unions, many workers have never had the slightest understanding of what a union is, so they don’t think of using unions to influence government policies. Those unable to endure tyranny have no choice but to end their lives, and under extreme circumstances they may just as well launch a suicide attack.

Social progress does not have to bring tragedy. A functioning union system will make society fairer and more just. The misfortunes of these two drivers help us see the root of Taiwan’s problems even more clearly.