Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Korean rail workers strike meets massive police presence

One Korail worker’s story of twenty years of struggle

The South Korean rail strike by members of the rail union (KRWU)  is entering its ninth day and a massive police presence is confronting strikers.  Readers can see a latest report here.  We should remember also that the US government has a powerful influence in the actions of its South Korean proxy which, like here in the US, is on a privatization binge.  It's worth remembering that the S Korean military for example is under the command of its US backers.

"Police raided the offices of the Korea Railroad Corporation's labor union in Seoul on Tuesday morning, taking away documents and computer hard drives.
Hundreds of police officers lined up on the streets outside to quell any possible unrest. Authorities also tried to enforce arrest warrants that were issued on Monday for 10 union members, but they were blocked by crowds of union members from gaining access to them."

Here is an interview with a KORAIL worker reprinted  from The Hankyoreh

Government’s response to organized labor is the toughest ever seen in Korea, with 8,565 Korail workers currently suspended By Im In-taek, staff reporter As of Dec. 15, the seventh day of a Korean Railway Workers’ Union (KRWU) strike against privatization, KORAIL had suspended 8,565 union members from their posts and accused more than 190 of them of obstructing operations. These were the largest such numbers in the history of South Korean railway strikes. One of the suspended workers was Lee Ki-dam, 53, an engineer with more than 23 years of service. Lee runs the Taebaek/Central Line, which runs through some of the country’s more remote mountainous areas in Gangwon Province. He knows the two winding tracks like the back of his hand.

What he can‘t figure out is the government’s response to the strike. “I was fired over a strike in 1994 and reinstated ten years later,” he recalled. “Even then, there was ongoing communication about railway development plans and issues involving dismissed workers, through the government and the union [KRWU] or through civic groups and the Tripartite Commission (among the union, management and the Ministry of Employment and Labor). "Once the Lee Myung-bak administration came into office [in 2008], all dialogue stopped. They refused to recognize us."

The government’s response to organized labor has intensified over the years. After a 2003 strike, 510 workers were subjected to disciplinary action, with 130 dismissed. A strike in 2009, early in the Lee administration, resulted in 946 suspensions, 186 obstruction accusations, and 169 dismissals. The latest strike, coming in the first year of the Park Geun-hye administration, has resulted in 8,565 workers being suspended and over 190 being charged with obstruction. Signs are also pointing to future legal action demanding compensation, along with more serious disciplinary action - including large-scale removals and terminations.

Lee took part in a Nov. 2009 strike as chairman of the emergency committee for KRWU’s Jecheon train crew chapter. He was suspended immediately, then fired early the next year. Soon a legal battle began. The second trial found the dismissal illegitimate; the first said Lee’s actions did not constitute obstruction. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling that the suspension was improper. KORAIL gave up its appeal on the disciplinary action, but the lawsuit over obstruction is now in its second trial. "All the courts have said that [the disciplinary action] was illegitimate, or that no crime was committed, yet we keep seeing the same methods used by the company against more and more of my co-workers," Lee said. "It defies common sense - they’re trying to neutralize the union, and they don’t care what the law says."

The courts’ position is illustrated in a Nov. 2012 ruling by the third criminal division of Daejeon District Court, which found Lee and 40 other union members from chapters across the country not guilty of obstruction. "This was a conventional strike that went through all scheduling procedures according to labor law," the ruling said. "It was a simple, passive refusal to provide labor services, without any use of violence and in full compliance with essential maintenance operations. While issues related to management authority may be included among the aims of the action, the corporation [KORAIL] had ample opportunity to foresee the strike‘s occurrence, and any damages that occurred were not the result of the strike happening too quickly for it to predict and take action."

The procedure for the latest strike was more or less identical. Seoul Administrative Court also sided with Lee and other unionists in a revocation trial for improper suspensions in connection with the 2009 strike. "The workers’ preparations for the strike fundamentally cannot be viewed as an issue of attitude toward their work - violation of orders, violation of duties, negligence of duties - or as issued related to ability to perform duties,“ the court ruled. ”The substantive grounds for suspending them was to push them to end the strike and return to their posts, and it must therefore be concluded that there was no need for the measures for the stated reason of preventing possible obstruction of operations if the workers were to continue on in the same positions in the future." Lee said the suspensions constitute disciplinary action.

The workers are given only basic pay without any additional allowances, and they are excluded from personnel evaluations during their suspension period, which makes it more difficult for them to be promoted in the future. If a suspension is not withdrawn within three months, the company may dismiss the worker. "Engineers take pride in their accident-free record," Lee said. "If they are suspended, then their record gets cut for several months from the date it happens."

According to Lee, KORAIL has often taken improper disciplinary action without going through formal disciplinary committee procedure. Lee was previously fired during the 1994 strike before being reinstated in 2003 under the Roh Moo-hyuun administration. The dismissal itself had been inevitable after the Supreme Court ruled the strike illegal, but Lee was able to regain his position after Tripartite Commission dialogue resulted in relief measures for numerous workers who lost their jobs over railway strikes. He was once again let go after Lee took office. The court came to his aid again, and now the company has suspended him.

"Right now, they see the unions as enemy number one," said Lee. "It makes a joke of the notions of sensible labor-management relations, labor law, and general law and order. How can you build trust when these things keep happening over and over?"

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