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Vol. 73/No. 49      December 21, 2009

S. Korea rail workers
end strike over job cuts
Rail workers in South Korea ended their eight-day strike December 4 after the government declared the strike illegal, raided the union office, and issued arrest warrants for 15 union leaders.

Nearly 15,000 rail workers launched the strike after the government-owned company unilaterally terminated the union contract as part of a plan to restructure the company and cut jobs.

“We failed to thwart the company’s annulment of the collective agreement and to achieve our demands,” said Kim Ki-tae, president of the Korean Railway Workers’ Union, in a statement. “I’m asking members to go back to their workplaces for a while and to prepare for our next fight.”

The company claimed the union had surrendered, but said that new contract talks “will be possible only when it openly declares that it won’t strike again.”

During the first few days of the strike, only 11 out of 300 daily freight trains were in service. The government sent in army engineers, some retired workers, and railway college students to operate the trains. It also shifted workers from passenger rail to freight, causing a 60 percent drop in commuter service.

Large manufacturers appealed to truckers to move cargo which was piling up as a result of the strike. But the Korea Cargo Transport Workers Union refused. Unionized truck drivers were on strike for four days in June and for a week in 2008.

South Korean president Lee Myung-bak claimed that the strikers’ demands were “unreasonable and selfish.” At a meeting attended by 130 government ministers and heads of state-run firms, he said the strike could not be tolerated “especially at a time when hundreds of thousands of our young people are suffering because they cannot find jobs.”

This is not the only attack on labor by the Lee administration. On the same day that cops raided the railway union headquarters, confiscating computer hard disks and documents, they raided the offices of the Korean Government Employees’ Union.

In August workers at the Ssangyong car factory were forced to end a 77-day occupation of the plant after battling thousands of riot cops.

The government has proposed revising South Korea’s labor law. Among the new measures: doubling the time that companies can employ temporary workers without giving them the same rights as permanent workers to four years and allowing more than one union at a work place. The new law would also prohibit full-time union officials from receiving wages paid by the company where workers have a contract, a common practice. Instead payments from the company would be allowed only when union officials are participating in contract negotiations or addressing grievances.

The South Korean government wants to curtail the power of unions, which have a long history of strikes and mass demonstrations, and make workers bear the brunt of the economic crisis.

The Financial Times of London complained in a September 18 article that South Korea “has six times more strikes than Japan.”

“South Korea’s fiery unions have long been cited,” the daily said, “as one of the main reasons why investors steer clear of Asia’s fourth-biggest economy.”

After the rail strike ended prosecutors said they still wanted to arrest union leaders. A total of 197 union members were indicted, including Kim, and 884 were fired from their jobs.

The rail company also said it plans to sue unionists for what the company claims are $7.8 million in losses due to the strike.
Related articles:
Massachusetts: Warehouse workers fight for contract
New Zealand wage freeze protested  
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