Korail strike turns to political rally

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Korail strike turns to political rally


Members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the striking Korail labor union members stage a demonstration march toward the Blue House at Gwanghwamun’s crossroads in central Seoul on Saturday night. During the course of the rally, their slogan changed from opposing the privatization of the state-run railway service to demanding that President Park Geun-hye step down. [NEWSIS]

On the heels of the government’s swift issuing of a formal license to operate a subsidiary for a new bullet train service linking Suseo-dong in southeastern Seoul to Busan separately from Korail, thousands of striking rail workers and supporters held rallies in central Seoul on Saturday, calling on the Park Geun-hye government to nullify the license. Some protestors demanded the resignation of the Park government, raising concerns that the longest rail strike in Korean history is deviating from the original cause advocated by the labor union of Korea Railroad Corporation (Korail).

After the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport issued the license Friday, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) held a massive street protest in front of Seoul City Hall at 3 p.m. Saturday. The organizer estimated the size of the rally at 100,000 people, while authorities put the number at 23,000.

“It will be Park Geun-hye who will be forced to step down in the end,” said Shin Seung-cheol, chairman of the KCTU, at the rally. “All the union members should minimize their everyday work and get ready to fight against a president who is not president.”

Kim Myeong-hwan, the Korail union leader who is hiding in the headquarters of the KCTU, said via a live video message: “Issuing a license to operate a subsidiary for a new bullet train service is tantamount to declaring war against the people. We cannot accept it. The Korail labor union will continue to stage a general strike into the new year unless the government cancels the license.” Many of the protestors held up pickets that read “Park Geun-hye Out,” reminiscent of the 2008 massive candlelight vigil against imported beef from the United States. The rally ended at about 7:30 p.m., after some 5,000 protestors marched toward the Sejong-no area.

Protesting what the labor union says is the government’s stealthy plan to form a subsidiary to run the bullet train service linking Seoul’s Suseo area with Busan in order to privatize the rail service, unionized workers at Korail staged a walkout on Dec. 9. The government has repeatedly denied the allegation, saying it has no intention to privatize the service and that the subsidiary will bring positive competition to the rail industry monopolized by “debt-ridden” Korail.

After management and the union leaders failed to reach an agreement on Friday morning, the Transport Ministry issued the operation license for the Suseo-Busan KTX line at 10 p.m.

Korail President Choi Yeon-hye held a press conference yesterday at Cheongnyangni Station, announcing Korail’s plan to hire 147 substitute train operators and 50 staff members to raise the service volume during the end of the year, when many people use the train service.

“I am deeply sorry this unprecedented rail strike has caused so much trouble to the national economy and inconvenience to people,” said Choi, “We will strive to settle the matter in accordance with principle and law.”

With the plan to supplement manpower, Choi said Korail will raise the KTX operation volume to 73 percent of normal volume and the subway volume in capital areas to 85 percent. The rail ticket booking service for the Lunar New Year holidays will be open from Jan. 7 through 10, as scheduled.

As of 4 p.m. yesterday, Korail said that 2,224 workers who had walked out returned to work; a return rate of about 25 percent. On the first day of the strike - Dec. 9 - 8,802 Korail workers walked off the job.

Korail added that nearly 1,000 unionized workers had returned over the weekend after the Korail president gave them an ultimatum Friday to go back to their jobs or lose them. Of 20,473 Korail workers, 6,578 are now waging the longest rail strike (as of 4 p.m. yesterday) in Korea’s history, which entered its 22nd day today.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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