Hundreds of union workers suspended for nationwide strike

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Hundreds of union workers suspended for nationwide strike

Korea Railroad Corporation (Korail) on Wednesday suspended from their jobs 100 employees for participating in the nationwide strike of railroad and subway workers and not showing up at their work stations, sparking concern that it may repeat its history of suspending thousands of employees in previous strikes.

In 2013, Korail suspended some 4,300 employees for going on strike. According to Korail, 5,020 of its 18,511 railway union members were on strike on Wednesday.

The Busan Transportation Corporation (BTC) also suspended 848 employees on Tuesday for joining the nationwide strike, inciting outrage from workers who will be suing its executives and board of directors.

According to the BTC, 841 out of 1,669 employees assigned to work on Tuesday participated in the strike and did not show up at their work stations, despite the corporation’s repeated requests. It said 48 employees returned to their posts that day.

The corporation subsequently suspended all 841, along with seven more employees who are leaders among the union members, on Tuesday.

The nationwide strike is being held by those who oppose the central government’s plans to expand a merit-based salary system to more employees of public corporations, as they fear that employees found wanting in assessments will be let go.

On Wednesday, 1,203 employees, or 49.5 percent, of the BTC participated in the strike. As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, 42 more employees had returned to their jobs.

Those who do not return to their jobs by the end of the day on Wednesday are expected to be placed on suspension, as well.

“Given that the workers’ strike is an illegal one, the board of directors decided to suspend the participating employees,” said a BTC official. “The suspension will be revoked for those who return to their jobs.”

The corporation said the strike is illegal because the Busan Regional Labor Relation Commission has not made a decision yet on whether to introduce the merit-based salary system at the corporation. The corporation received a review from the commission on Sept. 19 and requested another review on Sept. 21 - though it rescinded it on Wednesday following the commission’s recommendation to strike a settlement with union members first.

The union members, however, assert that the commission had finished its review on Sept. 19, making their strike a legal one.

The workers plan to sue Park Jong-hum, president of the BTC, and seven of its executives and members of its board of directors for allegedly violating the Trade Union and Labor Relations Adjustment Act.

“The corporation is responding strongly to the strike because so many workers participated on the first day,” said a union member. “But its decision to relieve participants of their posts is not only an abuse of power but also an unfair labor practice.”

Trains and subways are being run regularly during rush hour as public corporations have hired additional workers, many supplied by affiliated organizations and the military.

While Korail is running the KTX regularly, it had to reduce by more than 30 percent the operations of Mugunghwa passenger trains.

Freight transport operations are facing even steeper reductions, running at only 27.7 percent of normal operations, according to Korail. Cement transport in North Chungcheong and Gangwon slowed, and cargo transport in Busan dropped by more than half.

And small to midsize logistics companies are the ones taking the toll. Samik Logistics had to borrow some 400 freight cars on Tuesday and Wednesday after workers went on strike in order to meet its monthly quota of transporting 15,000 freight cars.

Making matters worse, the cost of transport is jumping. Before the strike, the transportation cost per freight car was around 400,000 won ($364), but it jumped to 470,000 won on Tuesday and 500,000 won on Wednesday.

Logistics companies like Samik are covering the additional costs alone, as they face contract cancellation from shippers if they cannot deliver the cargos in time.

“If the strike goes on for a couple of days more,” said Keum Dong-hoon, director of Sales and Marketing Headquarters at Samik Logistics, “we will run out of freight cars to deliver the goods.”

“Small to medium sized companies rely on Korail more than bigger companies do,” said an employee of a logistics company. “Railroad workers are going on strike too often and losing the trust of shippers.”

This is the ninth strike of railroad workers since 1988.

According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, some 23,500 members of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union and 10 public companies went on the strike on Wednesday. Among them were 6,500 Korail employees, 1,760 Seoul Metro employees, 710 Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit (SMRT) employees, and roughly 1,200 BTC employees.

Meanwhile, critics worry a prolonged strike may lead to accidents. A platform door malfunctioned at Ssangmun Station in northern Seoul on Tuesday and the subway operator, newly brought onto the job that day, drove the subway out of the station without realizing that passengers failed to get in or out.

Meanwhile, SMRT, which runs subway lines No. 5 through 8 in Seoul, held a meeting on Wednesday with executives of major public corporations in the city to discuss whether to introduce the controversial merit-based salary system to Seoul’s major public companies.

BY HWANG SUN-YOON, KANG SEUNG-WOO, KIM BANG-HYUN [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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