|Dec. 23 protest in Busan, South Korea, against government attack on rail workers. Union called strike after state-owned KORAIL refused to negotiate over plans to set up subsidiary company workers say is step toward privatization and assaults on wages, jobs and safety.|
Five thousand cops surrounded the confederation offices in Seoul and then 600 riot police forced their way into the building. The Railway Workers Union belongs to the KCTU, one of the country’s two main union federations with nearly 700,000 members, and affiliates in auto, rail, construction and education.
“There were 800 of us defending the offices,” Mykyung Ryu, the KCTU’s international director, said by phone from Seoul Dec. 23. “I was among 150 union members sitting on the stairs to block police from going into the main office on the 14th floor. They came down by the roof. They used pepper spray against us to force their way through.”
The cops had arrest warrants for rail union President Kim Myung-hwan and 24 other strike leaders. They searched through the building for nine hours, but failed to find any of the unionists on their list.
“They arrested 138 union members who were defending the building and detained them for 48 hours,” Ryu said. “They were accused of ‘obstruction of justice.’ They released all except the teachers union president, who they claim was violent during the clash.”
Workers went on strike after the Korean Railroad Corporation (KORAIL) refused to negotiate over plans to set up a subsidiary company to run a planned high-speed passenger train between Seoul and Busan in the south. The union sees this as a step toward privatization that would lead to job and wage cuts and unsafe working conditions.
KORAIL denies it plans to privatize the subsidiary. The company says the move is designed to make the company more efficient and reduce its debt, which stands at more than 17 trillion won ($16 billion).
On Dec. 17, police raided the head offices of the Railway Workers Union in Seoul, taking documents and computer hard drives, and two days later raided another four offices across the country.
The arrest warrants for the union leaders accuse them of “obstruction of business.” In South Korea workers can only strike over wages and working conditions and the government says that the strike against privatization is an illegal political strike.
“We say that privatization will affect working conditions,” Ryu said. “‘Obstruction of business’ is often used to suppress unions today. Especially in the public sector there are restrictions on the right to strike. The law says we have to keep up ‘minimal service,’ but this is vaguely written and the government uses it arbitrarily to declare strikes illegal.”
Striking workers win solidarityRyu said the KCTU is organizing daily protests and will begin a nationwide strike Dec. 28. The striking workers have won solidarity from workers, students and others in South Korea and other countries. A rally Dec. 14 in front of Seoul Station drew 12,000 participants.
“We had another rally on Dec. 19, which was much bigger,” Wol-san Liem, international affairs director of Korean Federation of Public Services and Transportation Workers’ Union, said to the Militant Dec. 23. “We estimate that 30,000 participated, the police gives the figure of 6,000. The Federation of Korean Trade Unions has also come out in support and this is important.”
The Federation of Korean Trade Unions, which has ties to the governing party, decided Dec. 20 to boycott discussions in a joint committee with the government and the bosses, protesting the raids on union headquarters.
“Students, churches and human rights organizations have protested the police attack on the KCTU office,” Liem said. “Right now I’m working on an appeal calling for unions around the world to organize protests outside Korean embassies and consulates. I know protests have taken place in Turkey, Hong Kong and France.”
The company hired scabs to replace the strikers and in a Dec. 20 press release KORAIL chief Choi Yeon-hye said the company plans to hire an additional 500 temporary workers.
The strike has hit freight the hardest, operating at 55 percent of its normal level; passenger services are down to 66 percent.
According to the JoongAng Daily, 876 workers have crossed the picket lines and gone back to work.
“This won’t have a big effect because these are not locomotive engineers, train crew or maintenance workers,” Liem said. “Among them the strike is solid.”
President Park Geun-hye, who was elected president last year, has ruled out any compromise with the unions.
The union-busting drive against the rail workers is the latest in a series of moves by Park to restrict trade union and political rights. In October, the Ministry of Employment and Labor stripped the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union of its legal status. A Seoul court has granted a temporary injunction blocking the move.
The government is also trying to ban the opposition Unified Progressive Party. Five party officials were arrested in August and September and charged with “conspiracy to commit a rebellion and violating the National Security Law.”
Park’s administration has been mired in controversy over the last several months over revelations that the National Intelligence Service orchestrated a campaign to smear Park’s opponents as agents of North Korea during the presidential elections.
“What the people want is solving the issue through reasonable dialogue, not oppressing the union,” Railway Workers Union leader Kim Jae-gil stated at a Dec. 23 press conference. “We demand again that President Park Geun-hye try to end the walkout through talks.”
“This started as a strike against the privatization of a rail line,” Liem said. “But now it has escalated to an attack on the entire Korean labor movement.”
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