Korean railroad workers strike against privatization

Striking railroad workers Seoul Station

Railway workers have been striking since December 9, 2013, the longest rail strike in South Korean history, against privatization attempts of President Park Geun-hye's New Frontier Party (Saenuri Party, 새누리당). The strike has reduced freight service by 70% and passenger service by as much as 40%.

Suicide mats laid out by police around KCTU headquarters

Yesterday, Sunday December 22, a force of 4,600 riot and 900 SWAT police raided the Korean Confederation of Trade Union's (KCTU) offices in central Seoul to serve an arrest warrant to leaders of the railroad union (a subsidiary of KCTU). There were 800 union supporters defending, claiming that the police had arrest warrants not search warrants.

The police broke down the glass door at the entrance of the building and arrested 120 strike supporters. The union leaders had already escaped from the building. The cops sprayed pepper spray chemical agents on the protestors. Protestors returned the favor by spraying the police with water. The bourgeois media covered the police raid live, hoping to demonize the strikers.

The strike was sparked on December 9th when it was announced that the Korea Railroad Corporation (KORAIL), the national rail system that additionally runs Seoul’s subway lines 1, 3, and 4 jointly with Seoul Metro, would set up a separate company to run a new bullet train line. Despite government claims to the contrary, this would be a first step towards privatizing KORAIL, much like the Japanese government had done to the public Japanese National Railways in 1987 to create the 7 for-profit companies of the present Japan Railways Group.

President Park Geun-hye is the daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea from the time of the military coup d'état in 1961 until he was killed during a drinking bout by the head of the KCIA. She continues his anti-labor dictatorial style in new neo-liberal form. She said that the strike risked “damaging the national economy" to rationalize the police attacks.

KORAIL CEO Choi Yeon-hye said today that she plans to hire 500 scabs to run the trains during the strike. “I plan to hire 300 engineers and 200 crewmembers as contract workers. They will be deployed to workplaces after a training program,” said Choi in a statement. Current labor law prohibits the hiring of replacements during a strike, but management claims the industrial action is illegal, justifying its use of scabs.

An 84-year old woman was killed on subway line 4 on December 15 after she was trapped between the rail car and the glass doors separating the platform from the tracks. A 19-year-old student hired by KORAIL as a scab to replace striking workers has been blamed for the accident.

Facts for the 3rd week of the strike:

    • 7,672 workers are currently on strike
    • KORAIL employs 20,473
    •. As of today (Monday, December 23rd), 1,098 have returned to work
    • KORAIL has suspended 8,565 rail workers
    • 2 union officials have been arrested; arrest warrants issued for 25 officials
    • KORAIL has filed a lawsuit totalling 7.7 billion won (US$7.2 million) against 186 accused of being strike leaders

KCTU has declared the anti-strike actions to be a "declaration of war" and vows to call out its 690,000 in an "all-out" general strike on December 28th. This is the normal rhetorical position of KCTU in such situations, not having been part of a real general strike since hundreds of thousands went out in 1996-1997 for nearly a month in opposition to draconian new labor laws passed covertly by parliament.

Posted By

Supply Chain Re...
Dec 23 2013 23:23


Attached files


Supply Chain Re...
Dec 28 2013 17:08

It's hard to call protests starting on a Saturday a "general strike," but here are some of the photos of the massive demonstrations around South Korea today: from abovefrom closer

Over 100,000 in the plaza near Seoul City Hall in the center of the city. The temperatures hovered between 3° and -9°C.

Photos with riot pigs and mobile police barricades in Seoul:

Central Seoul:

Hopefully the 3-week long rail strike will catalyze the class anger in South Korea, where 60% of all employees are casualized (as temps, short-term contract workers, or other unstable non-permanent jobs), into a real general strike.

Silas Fennec
Dec 30 2013 06:24
Dec 31 2013 02:42

I know Hieronymous has lived in Korea. Any other former expats who can give more insight?

Dec 31 2013 06:18
OliverTwister wrote:
I know Hieronymous has lived in Korea. Any other former expats who can give more insight?

Sorry that my insight doesn't go far enough for you.

Here's an analysis of the settlement compiled by a comrade from elsewhere in east Asia:

The "Sub-committee on Railway Development" contains 4 representatives from Saenuri and 4 from opposition parties. The KRWU has been relegated to an advisory role. Thus, Saenuri will, for all practical purposes, run the sub-committee. Furthermore, the opposition parties are all capitalist and the main opposition party has said that the raid on KCTU headquarters was conducted "improperly."

The government did not even have to drop any of its demands:

"The Minister of Land infrastructure and Transportation welcomed the end of the strike, however, at the same time, reconfirmed its position that “The illegal strike is illegal.” KORAIL also reconfirmed that it will maintain all the disciplinary measures planed, criminal chafe, lawsuit for compensation of damage of 7.7 billion won and provisional seizures for the union’s asset equivalent to 11.6 billion won. The related ministries are trying to legislate on the compulsory discharge (dismissal) against strikers in essential public services."

From the KCTU facebook page:

KCTU wrote:
➠ As of December 31 11am, the members of KRWU go back to work and continue their struggle at workplace.

➠Under the slogan “Step Down, Park! Stop Privatisation!, Abolish Union Repression!,” KCTU will stage its 2nd general strike on January 9th and the 3rd on January 16th, and will mobilize a nation wide simultaneous rallies on January 4th and People’s Day of Action on January 16th.

Judge for yourself what the meaning of all this is.

Jan 2 2014 06:13
iexist wrote:
Where did u post ur analysis?


When I lived in South Korea, I realized that the KCTU had risen to its level of incompetence (anyone old enough to remember the Peter Principle?) when it ran candidates in the 1998 election. In their stronghold, Ulsan (a Hyundai company town with auto and truck assembly lines, a shipyard, heavy industry plants, and a major port), they pulled less than 10% of the vote. I visited the (recently attacked) union headquarters and they were so proud of getting so many votes. It was pathetic, as KCTU had come far from its outlaw years and had become a corporatist union looking for its seat at the parliamentary table.

There have been incidents where "permanents" in KCTU working in auto plants have physically attacked non-union "casuals" when they wildcatted (e.g. at Kia Motors in August 2007). The former work side-by-side with the latter, but easily make 50% more and and are universally hated by temporary workers for their lack of class solidarity.

Yet this doesn't mean that workers everywhere shouldn't be in solidarity with the struggles of rank-and-file workers in KCTU.

Jan 3 2014 21:54

Hieronymous, I wasn't trying to get a dig in at you, i was hoping to hear your analysis but also encourage any others with any context to post about it.

Jan 3 2014 22:07

Fair enough.

Unless there is anyone in -- or has recently visited --South Korea, the most relevant site with a left/pro-labor take on the news is The Hankyoreh (click the link for a story posted today about the strike's aftermath).

Jan 15 2014 08:22

Heh, actually, the "comrade from East Asia" is actually in California.

Though I do originally hail from an East Asian country!