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Police seeking to arrest leaders of striking rail union

Four ministers issue joint statement saying the work stoppage is ‘illegal’

Dec 02,2009
Yongsan Police yesterday raided the head office of the Korean Railway Workers’ Union to arrest 15 union leaders on charges of masterminding the nationwide strike and disrupting Korail operations.

The raid came after a court approved prosecutors’ request for arrest warrants to detain senior union members, including union head Kim Ki-tae, on charges they refused three times to obey a prosecution order that they appear for a hearing and for leading the railway strike. But by the time police arrived, the leaders had left.

“[We tried to] execute the arrest warrants quickly after the court’s approval because there are concerns that the illegal strike may be prolonged. Investigators are now examining computer hardware, meeting documents and fax records confiscated from the office.” Police yesterday formed a special team to track down union leaders to make the arrests.

The tough stance on the strike reflects President Lee Myung-bak’s earlier comments. “People will find it hard to understand why a union in a public corporation is staging a strike because public corporation workers enjoy safe job security. Most of them can work until retirement age. On the other hand, tens of thousands of youths are struggling to find a job,” President Lee said Saturday in a workshop held at a training center for public service workers in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi.

Four government ministers yesterday issued a joint statement labeling the strike as “illegal” because it is not about current working conditions but simply opposes the government reform policies on public corporations.

The ministers - Finance Minister Yoon Jeung-hyun, Labor Minister Yim Tae-hee, Knowledge Economy Deputy Minister Rim Chae-min and Korea Customs Service Commissioner Hur Yong-suk - urged the strikers to get back to work. “A prolonged strike will cause immense economic loss and dampen positive sentiment in Korea that the country is gradually leaning toward recovery in the domestic economy,” the statement read. “The unionists ... are against the government policies that are set to introduce reform measures in the public sector and are demanding reinstatement of sacked workers. The union’s demands crossed legitimate grounds granted to labor unions that are protected under the law. Therefore the strike is illegal.”

Finance Minister Yoon said the government is adding alternative workers - such as non-union railway workers, military personnel and former train drivers - to keep passenger trains moving near normal operation rates. Citing the Korea International Trade Association’s research, Deputy Knowledge Economy Minister Rim estimated that nationwide disruption of cargo train operations would inflate the price of alternative transportation.

“If only 40 percent of daily cargo trains are operated, exports lose $60 million per day and $1.7 billion per month,” Rim said. “I’m concerned that the strike will harm the supply of cement and coal because they heavily rely on cargo trains. In the case of cement, stockpiles had enough to last for five days before the strike began and now, there’s only stock for 1.5 days. ”

Korea Customs Service Commissioner Hur said the main victims of the strike are small and medium-sized companies that are unable to export ordered items.

The railway workers’ union issued a statement yesterday and argued its strike is legal because 15,000 of its 25,000 union members walked out and that portion is protected under the law. “We have called for the urgent need to resolve the strike by discussions, but the government and Korail are suppressing us,” the union’s statement read.

Cargo train operations from the inland container depot in Uiwang, Gyeonggi, the nation’s main logistics hub near Seoul, stood at about 30 percent of normal, Korail said.

The passenger subway line No. 1 saw 10-minute delays. “It will take some time for emergency workers to fully get used to driving subway trains and making stops at stations,” a Korail official explained.

Korail’s railway restructuring plan is a part of the government’s broader reform of public corporations that are deemed to be inefficient. Korail CEO Huh Joon-young has said reform measures are unavoidable to save the debt-ridden corporation.

In a series of labor-management negotiations in November, the union demanded the management drop its plan to adopt an early retirement and wage peak system that allows for a gradual pay cut when employees reach a certain age. It also asked Korail to reinstate fired union members.


By Chang Chung-hoon, Kim Mi-ju [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]



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