Rationalizing services is keyThe nation’s rail services have normalized after labor and management reached a settlement following a weeklong strike that caused disruption in long-distance public transportation. Many citizens had to endure inconvenience because the KTX and other passenger services were running at 60 to 70 percent of their normal levels. Many high school students aspiring to enter university next year could not easily get to their interviews and arts tests at universities across the nation. Business also suffered a lot because freight transport fell to 31 percent of usual levels.
The labor dispute centered on four key issues — an increase of staff by 4,000 ahead of a new shift system, a 4 percent raise in salaries, stability in employment and a merger with SR, the operator of the high-speed Super Rapid Train (SRT). The union was arguing that at least 4,600 extra workers are needed for the new rotational work schedule (a two-day break after two days of work from the current two-day break after four days of work).
But the demand was rejected by management as it was considered unreasonable. Work hours currently average 39.3 hours per week. Under the new shift system, the hours are reduced to 31 per week on average. An increase in labor costs would burden the government and the public as the higher costs could translate into more losses at the public railway operator and possibly higher transportation fees. Moreover, getting more money for less work could send a wrong message to other unions. A merger with SRT also cannot be easy.
A second bullet train service was introduced under the past liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun to reform the public rail service through competition. Citizens oppose the merger of Korail and SRT services. Train services were less disrupted by strikes because privately-run SRT services were reliable substitutes. Improved work conditions could have been solved without walkouts.
The union has criticized the rail operator and government for failing to agree to their promises to improve work conditions for better rail safety and public services. But resorting to a collective strike cannot win public sympathy. Both labor and management must try to work toward rationalizing their services and management to enhance competitiveness.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 25, Page 34