The rail workers’ strike enters its fourth day today, showing no signs of coming to an early end. The walkout is likely to continue as the more than 4,000 workers of Korea Railroad Corp. vow to fight indefinitely until their demands are met.
The workers went on strike to prevent the state rail operator from creating a subsidiary for the management of a new Seoul-Busan KTX high-speed train service that departs from Suseo Station in southern Seoul, separate from the existing one that departs from Seoul Station.
The union workers oppose the establishment of the subsidiary as they view it as a first step toward privatizing the nation’s rail service. They believe that privatization is bound to result in mass layoffs and fare hikes.
Defying the union’s walkout, however, KORAIL management approved Tuesday a plan to set up the proposed affiliate. The company dismissed the union’s suspicions, noting that the new subsidiary would be 100 percent owned by KORAIL and other state-run organizations.
Behind KORAIL’s push for the new unit stands the government, which seeks to make the rail operator more efficient through competition with its new affiliate. The government’s ultimate aim is to reduce KORAIL’s snowballing debt, which reached 17.6 trillion won in June.
Backed by the government, KORAIL reacted strongly to the union’s action. Defining the walkout as illegal, it removed some 6,000 workers from their positions and referred some 200 union leaders to the police.
Choi Yeon-hye, the company’s president, made it clear that there would be no reversal of the decision made Tuesday. Reaffirming that the new affiliate had nothing to do with privatization, she said it would rather help KORAIL improve efficiency and provide a better service to customers. She then urged the striking workers to stop their action and return to work as soon as possible.
KORAIL unionists would do well to put aside their suspicions and take their president’s word. They are well aware that the government cannot push for privatization of KORAIL without endorsement from the ruling and opposition parties.
The two parties are not interested in privatizing the rail operator. Rather, they are planning to rewrite the law on KORAIL to prevent it and other state organizations from selling their stakes in the planned subsidiary to private companies.
In this regard, the union’s strike decision is unwarranted. Their continued walkout would only raise suspicions that they are using it as a means of pressuring the company to accept their wage demands.
KORAIL’s management is right to play hardball with the union. But at the same time, it needs to continue to talk with unionists to convince them that the company is not making any attempt at privatization.
The government, for its part, needs to be prepared for a protracted strike. Thus far, there has been no major disruption to passenger train services, but the walkout has begun to take a toll on cargo services.
A prolonged strike will cause serious damage to such industries as cement, coal, steel and logistics, which depend heavily on rail transport. Cement producers are already suffering losses, as they have to use more expensive road transport. The government needs to ensure that the rail walkout does not develop into a logistics nightmare, causing widespread damage across industries.