Jan. 23  2020
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History in the Making: the Railway Workers Strike

Today, we declare, with full sense of justice, to the people of Korea that the railway workers of Korea have began a general strike.

Railway Workers Strike Declaration

Today, we declare, with full sense of justice, to the people of Korea that the railway workers of Korea have began a general strike.

From this moment, train has stopped.

Until the moment the government, this deaf government recognises that railway workers are human being, that railway workers are entitled to the basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Korea, no train shall run on this land.

Our demands, our heart-rending appeals, our cries of desperation have been totally ignored.

We have ceaselessly shouted, appealed, and made demands to the government, this deaf government, that we want to be able to live as human beings, that we want one rest day a week, that no more our colleagues should be driven to death at work. But, our demands have been overlooked, trampled, and denounced.

Thus, we bring the trains to a stop. We bring the world to a stop.

The general strike that we have embarked on is a desperate act of railway workers to protect ourselves, to bring to end the murderous working system at the railway. It is a terrible struggle to defend the right of the people to safe, affordable, and comfortable transportation.

From this moment onwards, until the government opens the ears to our desperate demands, appeals, and outcries, until it opens the mouth, and thus humbly listen to us words, and bring to end the conspiracy to sell out the railways to profit seeking capital, eradicate the murderous working conditions, until our colleagues who have been sacked for the crime of fighting for just demands are reinstated with full justice, we shall not stop our struggle.

This struggle, this beautiful general strike to defend the basic rights of railway workers and to defend the railway of the people, shall not stop until the beautiful goal is completely achieved.

We shall without any doubt be victorious.

Railway workers, unite!

February 25, 2002
Korea Railway Workers Union Industrial Action Committee

The railway workers strike that began on February 25 is the third strike at the railways in 103 years of railway history in Korea.

The Demands

The demands of the railway workers fuelling the historic general strike can be summarised as:

* withdrawal of the government plan for privatisation
* improvement in working conditions, and
* reinstatement of dismissed workers.

The demands concerning working conditions and dismissed workers are related * closely to the two previous strikes by the railway workers.

The Korea Railway Workers Union demands a change in the shift system, from the current "two 24 hour shift" to "two shifts by rotation of three teams". The introduction of a new shift system requires, according to the union's analysis, an increase of 6,900 workers.

The union also demands the reduction of current 192 hours per month working hours to 176 hours. The management refused to entertain this demand, only to assert that it can be considered in connection with the five day working week system that may come into force once the change in the labour law is enacted.

The union's demands concerning the shift system and working hours can be simplified as one rest day a week - the unchanged demand since the first ever strike in 1988.

According to the union, 45% of railway workers are engaged in "two 24 hour shifts" rotation system. These workers work 62 hours a week, which is 6.9 hours more than the actual average working hours in Korea, and 18 hours more than the statutory weekly working hours. Recently, the work intensity has stepped up due to the continuing structural adjustment since 1994. Workers are forced to cut back on their sleep and meal hours. Workers complain that their actual working hours is more than 300 per month. [This has led one major daily to head an article about working conditions of railway workers with the title "There is a Cause for the Strike".]

A comparison of working hours of railway workers with subway workers doing similar work reflects the backwardness of the working conditions (and the negligence of the union). Railway workers work 50% longer than the same categories of workers in the Subways (but receive lower wages). The union found that a "two shift rotation by 3 teams" was established for the police personnel since 2001; railway workers could not understand why they are forced to work in 24 hours shifts.

[The management response: "Workers are paid additional 6,000 won per hour as overtime penalty. On top of that, there are certain things that workers in the railways must accept as government employees who are expected to make sacrifices for the comfort of the people". Furthermore, "simple comparison with subway workers is not possible, and it is not rare for employees in private enterprises, due to the types of work, to work long overtime." (An argument for privatisation?)]

The change in work-shift and reduction of working hours need concomitant measures to maintain the wage level, so that the take-home wage is not reduced due to the shortening of working hours.

These changes, as the Korean National Railroad is a state entity, would require budgetary adjustments. The KoRail, however, has not made any efforts in this regards, despite the fact that the union's demands were known for a long time. It has not made any consultation with the Ministry of Planning and Budget and the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs which are responsible for budget. It has dragged its feet ever since the union began its campaign last year. (This may stem from the fact that the management is not accustomed to serious bargaining with the previous union leadership.)

These demands of the union, however, are not new. These were the demands put forward by the railway workers in the first and the second strikes in the railways, in 1988 and 1994, respectively.

History of the Demands and Struggle

On July 26, 1988, locomotive drivers struck against extreme working conditions. Working conditions for railway workers were aggravated by the rash commandor-type "rationalisation" plan of the Administrator, a former marine general. The drivers demanded a "mid-course driver change" on the Seoul-Pusan direct route and reduction in working hours.

The strike organised - not by the union, but - by locomotive drivers association was crushed in its second day as the government sent in troops to put down the strike. A number of drivers who were identified as the leaders of the strike were dismissed, while many others suffered various disciplinary punishment. Following the suppression of the strike, the government reduced the maximum daily working hours from 18 to 14, and introduced regular rest day.

The locomotive drivers struck again six year later, on June 23, 1994. The second strike also focused on issues of working conditions.

They demanded a change in the reference hour of work for calculating overtime pay. At the time, overtime began once workers filled the required 192 hours per month. They demanded the overtime to be measured as the excess of 8 hours of work per day. This demand called for the establishment of an eight-hour day. They also demanded a guaranteed paid rest of 67 days per year - one rest day per week plus a total of two weeks of summer holiday and annual leave.

Focusing on the issues of democracy at work, the striking drivers demanded the eradication of discrimination in promotion between general staff and technicians. Another crucial issue for them - inheriting the tradition of struggle - was the reinstatement of those drivers who were dismissed in the course of suppression of the 1988 strike.

The strike lasted one week before it was violent brought to an end by the government which sent in riot police troops. A total of 6,147 drivers took part in the strike. They, like the striking workers today, withdrew themselves to a safe place to maintain and protect their ranks, which were subsequently sacked by storming riot police.

The price they paid for their strike was enormous: a total of 187 active leaders of the strike were subjected to legal/criminal action, resulting in the arrest and imprisonment of 16. 727 striking members suffered disciplinary action, while 54 of them were dismissed.

The Third Strike - The First Strike:
the continuation of the past, the beginning of the future

Much of the demands of the union striking today are either very similar to or are in extension of the demands of the train drivers in their two previous strikes. The demands concerning working conditions reflect the decades of desperation, due to non-existent improvement and unfulfilled promises. The severity is reflected in the extremely high rate of major work-related accidents and death toll. In 2001, 34 railway workers died at work, due to fatigue or work-accidents.

The demand for reinstatement of dismissed workers are rooted in the first two strikes. The union is demanding the reinstatement of 58 workers dismissed in the aftermath of the two previous strikes. This demand is central to the integrity of the union, especially under the new leadership, which embraces the history of struggle dotted with frustrations and desperation and two strikes by drivers.

The management and the government claim that there is no precedence in reinstating dismissed government employee. They claim it would need amendment of the existing laws that govern the civil service. In response, the union has proposed that the dismissed workers need not be reinstated to their position at the time of their dismissal, but can be "reinstated" in the form of new hiring at a low technician's position. The "reinstatement" is a vital issue for the dismissed workers who gave up so much of their lives for their love for the railways and their fellow workers. Who else can begin to heal their wounds if not the union they fought so hard to build.

The current strike is the first strike that is led by the union proper, since it was formed in 1954. The current strike by the Korea Railway Workers Union reflects the "revolutionary" change that has taken place within the union. Until last year, the union structure and the system of election were such that the elected leaders were totally insulated from the members. "Elected" officers ruled, controlled, and punished the members from the position of power. [The fact that the two previous strikes were organised and led by drivers, not the union itself, is indicative of the situation of the union.] This was made possible by the three-tier electoral collegiate system.

However, through the persistent efforts of groups of members within the union - including the drivers association - a direct election of the president by individual union members was established last year. The current leadership of the union is the product of struggle of a number of opposition or activist groups within the union. The union has 24,000 members out of 29,000 total employees at the Korean National Railroad.

More than 13,000 union members are taking part in the camp-out strike in 5 locations throughout the country, including some 5,000 workers in the Konkuk University, Seoul. Meanwhile, according to newspaper reports, freight operation was reduced to 10%, and passenger operation brought down to and average of 35% (even lower for inter-city services) due to the strike, despite the deployment of "replacement" workers, and extension of subway services for metropolitan routes covered by the KoRail.

The Union Opposition to Privatisation:
Government Held Hostage to "International Confidence"

The government of President Kim Dae Jung accepted a programme of revolutionary economic reform laid down by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Wall Street consortium. It also accepted the mirage of "international confidence" as the sole yard stick (or whip) to test its faithfulness to the commitment.

The key programme of the economic reform dictated to the government was "restructuring" and "privatisation".

The government could be excused for accepting all the demands put to it by what was thought to be the only "saviour" at the time, in the haste and desperate situation of the crisis. But, it has not be able to review its programmes on the basis of their soundness. Furthermore, the government has not been able to refer to any other guide post than "international confidence". As a result, other values and principles, such as, democratic consensus, social integration, economic and social soundness, political process, social dialogue, or the will of the people, have all disappeared from the government's consideration.

Giving in to the pressure from the society, from the unions, to adjust the course and shape of reform - one which is derived through and from consensus, and thus have a better chance of working and better outcome - could not be entertained by the government, because it would be seen as reneging on the initial commitment, and thus earn the ire of (the backlash) of "international confidence".

This is exactly what is happening with the privatisation agenda of the government regarding the railways.

The government tabled draft bills for "Act for the Development and Structural Reform of the Railways" and "Act for the Establishment of Korea Railway Infrastructure Corporation" in December last year. But the National Assembly has "refused" to proceed with the debate on the proposed new legislations presented by the government. Only once did the opposition party hold its own public hearing on the issue. The inability of the political parties in the National Assembly to proceed with legislative debate reflects a serious absence of a broad consensus on the issue - that is privatisation pursued by the government.

Only now, following the strike by the railway workers, have the members in the National Assembly begun to make comments on the entire issue. The majority opposition party has decided to oppose the adoption of the bills for formal discussion at the relevant standing committee. Furthermore, even the ruling (minority) party has expressed that the situation is not appropriate for a formal debate.

Individual National Assembly representatives have begun to make alternative suggestions. One member from the ruling party suggested the creation of a special committee composed of the management and the union of the Korean National Railroad and the Ministry of Construction and Transportation to address the issue. On the other hand, a representative from the opposition party commented that the bills were produced and tabled in haste by the government to showcase its progress in reform efforts. To overcome the shortcoming, he suggested, the setting up of a special parliamentary committee on development of railroads to examine the feasibility of various proposals.

The various suggestions made by the members of the National Assembly are remarkably similar to the proposal by the union that the government is quick to dismiss: establishment of a consultative body entrusted to produce options for railroads development, whose proposals would be accepted by the management and the union in consensus.

Despite the clear indications of a glaring absence of society-wide consensus, the government asserts that the demand of the union to rethink the privatisation plan cannot be entertained because the relevant bills are already tabled at the National Assembly. The National Assembly Standing Committee on Construction and Transportation, however, met on February 26 and decided not to adopt the two government bills concerning the railroads in the agenda for discussion, in effect nullifying the government bills.

What results the historic strike may bring about depends on the proceedings and the conclusion of negotiations which have resumed in the later afternoon of the second day of the strike. Regardless of the immediate results of the negotiations, what is certain is that the strike of the railway workers marks a watershed, not only in the development of the trade union at the Korean National Railroad, but in the trade union campaigns against the neoliberal structural adjustment, and the greater history of the entire trade union movement in Korea. It could also set a significant turning point in the government's handling of the whole economic reform programme. The successful historic strike by railway workers could be the critical mass of influence that could jolt the government out of the seizure of "international confidence".


Moody International Confidence

The strike by public utilities workers, including the railway workers, could not have come at a worse time, in view of the government's fear of "international confidence". This week a team of Moody's sovereign credit agency is in Korea to evaluate the status of Korean economy. Media, articulating the concerns of the government, has swooped on every word the evaluation team had to say - rather what the government official say the Moody's personnel had said.

Unfortunately for the government - adding to its discomfort - the media has presented a very contradictory picture of the Moody's team's mood:

One paper wrote, 'the evaluation team expressed strong concern that the practice of illegal strikes are returning and that the principle of privatisation is shaking'. It went on to quote one of the Moody's team: "we note two possibilities - one, the possibility of pervasive illegal strikes which tainted the image of industrial relations in Korea, and two, the possibility of a retreat in the privatisation plan the government has put forward." The comments were relayed to the media by an official of a government ministry.

Another news agency, published on the same day, portrayed a different picture. The Moody's team is said to have said of the strike by workers in public utilities, that it is not concerned about the issue any more than other issues, and that such things [the strikes] "can occur in advanced industrialised countries." The comments were relayed to the media by an official of a government ministry.

What is clear is that the ears and eyes of the Korean government is directed at "foreign capital". Following a State Council meeting on February 26, where President Kim Dae Jung laid down the basic direction of the government attitude towards the strikes, one the high ranking presidential aid briefed the media on the disposition of the President. He conveyed that President believed, "From the point of view of foreign capital, privatisation, together with the sales of troubled companies, is an important criterion against which the direction of restructuring in Korea is judged." The newspaper article inferred from this that the President was seriously concerned that the strike may have negative impact on "international confidence" and the economy as a whole. The article went on the state, "This is the very reason President Kim cannot tolerate these strikes at the public utilities."

2002 / -0 / 2-
Labor | Science & ICT | Society | Human Rights
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