More than 15,000 workers, i.e. about 80% of the work force of the state owned Korea Railroad Corporation (Korail) went on strike on December 9, protesting against steps that are being widely perceived as preliminary to privatizing the rail service – a plan by the management to sell off to private hands the most profitable slice of its business. The strike was led by the Korean Railroad Workers Union (KRWU). It has been supported by the country’s biggest union umbrella, the 700,000-strong Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), which has called for a one-day general strike on February 25.
The South Korean government and the management of Korail ruthlessly attacked the striking workers, even as they gained increasing public sympathy and support.
In an attempt to break the strike, the Korail management hired an army of scabs to run the rail services, causing at least one serious accident leading to the death of a passenger. It threatened to dismiss 4213 trade unionists and file a lawsuit against 194 union leaders. Arrest warrants were issued for 10 union leaders. On December 17 the police raided the KRWU’s offices nationwide.
The building housing the office of the KCTU in Seoul was raided on December 22. 4000 riot police sledgehammered their way into the 18-story building and conducted a 10-hour, door-to-door, warrantless search for the strike leaders.
The strike was called off on December 30, following an agreement between the two major political parties to form an ad hoc committee in the National Assembly to go into the issue of rail privatization. However the struggle is far from over.
Inspite of the strike being called off, the Korail management is continuing the persecution of the striking workers. It has sought an injunction to seize the assets of the union and its leaders as part of its 11.6 billion won (US$10.8 million) damages suit. The management is silent as to whether it will actually fire all the 4123 unionists it had earlier threatened it would. It has summoned 256 union activists to a penalty commission, considered a routine step toward dismissal. It has requested arrest and detention warrants for eight union leaders who had already turned themselves in to the police after the strike. The court has rejected arrest-warrant requests for three other union activists.
The KCTU has called for a series of public actions, on January 9, 11 and 16, leading up to the general strike on February 25, to continue the struggle against the privatization of rail services.
Earlier too the South Korean government had attempted to carry out privatization of rail services, in 2000 and 2003, which had been staunchly resisted by the workers. The present move of the government to approve the selling off of one of the most profit making sections of the Korail services is seen by the workers and Korean people as a precursor to a much larger scale of privatization. With workers in several sectors of the economy coming out in support of the railway workers, the struggle is likely to escalate in the coming weeks.