South Korean Railway Workers Union resist creation of a new affiliate rail company, 2013

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Timing
Time Period:  
9th December
2013
to
30th December
2013
Location and Goals
Country: 
South Korea
Location City/State/Province: 
Seoul
Location Description: 
Railway strikes were held nationally but the focal point of protest was in Seoul
Goals: 
Retraction of plan to establish an affiliate company of Korea Railroad Corp. (KORAIL)
 

The South Korean railway strike began when Korea Railroad Corporation (KORAIL) revealed plans to establish a new affiliate rail company to manage the bullet train line from Suseo to Pyeongtaek. The Korean Railway Workers Union (KRWU) claimed that this government initiative was the first step in privatisation of the rail company and called for the government to retract its plans. The South Korean government denied such plans for privatisation.

In response, the railway unions voted on the 22 November to initiate a strike in December. The railway workers were aware, however, that the strikes could be declared illegal as they did not protest working conditions, and the memories of their 2009 strike, which resulted in mass arrests of trade unionists, remained raw in their minds. Therefore, to bolster the campaign, the unions reached out to the international community for support. The International Transport Workers’ Federation came to their aid, and an online campaign was initiated on LabourStart, an online trade union news service, to support the Korean railway workers. The petition gathered 15,000 signatures from trade unionists – 90% of whom were from outside South Korea. Nevertheless, the South Korean government announced it would carry forward its plans.

The strike began at 9:00 a.m. on the 9 December. Almost 15,000 unionists, who composed 45% of the railway workforce, joined the strike. The unionists came out to Seoul to hold rallies in front of the KORAIL headquarters and in Seoul Plaza. The strikes meant that the trains now operated at 78% of the normal traffic. The tense atmosphere was exacerbated when the Seoul Subway Workers Union declared their solidarity and voted to join in on the strike on the 18 December. However, the Seoul Subway Workers Union managed to strike a deal with the government before the strike began and did not end up carrying their strikes forward. In response to the strikes, the government immediately declared the strikes to be illegal, hired temporary workers to replace the strikers, fired 4,213 unionists, and filed legal complaints against 194 strike leaders for almost 7 million dollars in damages.

The strikes continued despite the government backlashes. Strikers held candle vigils during the night, and the International Transport Workers’ Federation issued a statement denouncing the South Korean government’s failure to respect the right of workers to strike, according to international law. By 17 December, the railway strike became the longest that South Korea has ever seen.

The government issued arrest warrants for the strike leaders on the 16 December and raided the railway union offices for hard drives and confidential documents on 17 December. The government then carried out raids on the Korean Confederation of Trade Union (KCTU) offices, presumably believing that the railway workers union leaders were hiding in their offices. The police did not have search warrants and entered with only the arrest warrants for railway union leaders. The KCTU members attempted to resist police entry, but the police used pepper spray to disperse the KCTU members. The police eventually prevailed, forcing entry by using pepper spray and smashing the glass doors. However, the union leaders were reported to have already fled, and the police left without finding the railway union leaders after a five hour search. Despite the police actions, the KCTU voted to launch a general strike on the 28 December. The police also drew the ire of public sector and various civil societies, which declared the forced entry into KCTU headquarters illegal. Amnesty International also declared that human rights were not being respected in South Korea and called on the government to respect the rights of workers to strike.

The police later discovered that the leaders of the strike were hiding in Jogye Temple in Seoul and the KORAIL leadership and the union leaders agreed to bilateral talks in hopes of defusing the situation. The talks broke down on the 27 December, however, and the government issued an ultimatum that unless the workers returned to work by midnight, they would face severe disciplinary actions.

The strike came to a close when the opposition political party (Democratic Party) reached a deal with the ruling party on the 30 December by promising to form a committee that would discuss the causes of the strike and the long-term effects of establishing a new affiliate company. The formation of the affiliate itself was not altered. While the strikes did not stop the formation of the new affiliate company, it did bring the issue of privatisation into public debate which was seen in the subsequent “I’m not Fine” movement, where the general public raised various grievances against the government.

Research Notes
Influences: 

1) The railway strike of 2009 influenced the strike in 2013.

2) Led to the sympathy strike by the KCTU which extended into January. Also, the railway strike of 2013 sparked a popular movement showing discontent at the economic and political atmosphere in South Korea ("I'm Not Fine movement)

Sources: 
Anon. 2013. “Amnesty International.” South Korea: Stop arrests of trade union leaders and respect the rights of striking workers. Retrieved March 2, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150302160333/https://www.amnesty.org/en/articles/news/2013/12/south-korea-stop-arrests-trade-union-leaders-and-respect-workers-right-strike/).

Anon. 2013. “Amnesty International.” South Korea: Stop arrests of trade union leaders and respect the rights of striking workers. Retrieved March 2, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150302160333/https://www.amnesty.org/en/articles/news/2013/12/south-korea-stop-arrests-trade-union-leaders-and-respect-workers-right-strike/).

Anon. 2013. “Chronology of S Korea's Longest Rail Strike.” Chronology of S. Korea's longest rail strike. Retrieved March 2, 2015 (http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2013/12/30/15/0302000000AEN20131230005500315F.html).

Anon. 2013. “South Korean Railway Workers Go on Strike Over Suspected Privatization Plan.” NewsBank. December 9, 2013. Retrieved March 2, 2015 (http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/14A9725F2741F510?p=AWNB).

Anon. 2013. “South Korean Workers, Supporters Rally Against Government Planned Bullet Train.” NewsBank. December 28, 2013. Retrieved March 2, 2015 (http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/14AFB5D2EBFA2DC0?p=AWNB).

Anon. 2013. “Strike by Railway Workers' Union Showing No Sign of Settlement.” BusinessKorea. Retrieved March 2, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150302160137/http://www.businesskorea.co.kr/article/2580/logistical-disturbance-strike-railway-workers’-union-showing-no-sign-settlement).

Anon. 2013. “Talks Between S Korean Rail Union, Management Collapse.” NewsBank. Retrieved March 2, 2015 (http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/14AF770AAB0031A8?p=AWNB).

Lee, Eric. 2013. “South Korea: Rail Workers, Repression and Resistance.” openDemocracy. Retrieved March 2, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150302155509/https://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/eric-lee/south-korea-rail-workers-repression-and-resistance).

San, Yi. 2014. “South Korea Rail Workers Strike Against Privatization.” South Korea Rail Workers Strike against Privatization. Retrieved March 2, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150302155607/http://www.labornotes.org/2014/01/south-korea-rail-workers-strike-against-privatization).

Sang Moo, Lee and Kim Myoung Hwan. 2014. “Official Statement on the Conclusion of the Korean Rail Strike.” solidarity stories. Retrieved March 2, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150302155745/https://isckoreamedia.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/official-statement-on-the-conclusion-of-the-korean-rail-strike/).

Woo, Jaeyeon. 2013. “Political Parties Come Together to End Rail Strike.” Korea Real Time RSS. Retrieved March 2, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150302160431/http://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2013/12/30/political-parties-come-together-to-end-rail-strike/).

Woo, Jaeyeon. 2013. “President Speaks Out Against Railroad Strike.” Korea Real Time RSS. Retrieved March 2, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150302160034/http://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2013/12/16/president-speaks-out-against-railroad-strike/).

Woo, Jaeyeon. 2013. “Rail Strike Intensifies.” Korea Real Time RSS. Retrieved March 2, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/save/http://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2013/12/23/south-korea-rail-strike-intensifies/).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Dong Shin You 29/02/2015