Jan 6, 2014
At the beginning of December, the Korean State Railroad Company (Korail) announced the creation of a subsidiary to run a new high speed rail line. The railway workers understood that it was the first step toward the privatization of the railway, along with massive layoffs. They didn’t hesitate to respond and began a strike which was the longest ever to occur against this company. The government decided to use severe methods to break the strike, but failed.
The Korean Railway Workers Union (KRWU) began the strike on December 9th. The strikers increased in number and through their action paralyzed a big part of the national railway network. On December 18th, the government declared the strike illegal and the railway company laid off 7,927 workers. The police entered local union offices throughout the country. They then got an injunction to prevent “obstruction of economic activity” against 28 leaders and union representatives.
On December 22nd in Seoul, almost 4,000 police encircled the high rise housing the office of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), which the KRWU belongs to. They broke in the glass door of the building and made their way up to the 17th floor, hitting and scattering with tear gas strike activists seated on the stops of the stairs to block the way. In all, the clash lasted almost 10 hours. The police arrested 130 people, but didn’t seize the union leaders, who took refuge in a Buddhist temple, where the forces of order didn’t dare enter.
On December 28th, the KCTU called for a one day general strike in solidarity with the railway workers. Several tens of thousands of people assembled in the center of Seoul. For its part, Korail began layoff procedures and launched an ultimatum to the strikers and started to hire new temporary workers.
On December 30th, the union leaders announced the end of the strike, having obtained two commissions to study the question of privatization. One commission includes opposition members of Parliament, and the other union representatives. There’s a long way to go to prevent the privatization! But the railway strike, by its determination, ended up by causing difficulties for the administration and President Park Geun-hye, called the “Iron Lady of Seoul,” who has been in office since 2012.
The railway workers showed that the working class has the force to fight. For all the strikers, it’s certainly the most important gain of this movement.