Published : 2013-12-24 19:52
Updated : 2013-12-24 19:52
The prolonged standoff between President Park Geun-hye’s administration and the railway workers on strike has blown into a full-scale confrontation between the government and labor since last Sunday’s police raid on the headquarters of an umbrella union to arrest strike leaders presumed to have been holed up there. To the embarrassment of the police, officers failed to capture any of the leaders, who had apparently slipped out of the offices of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions shortly before the raid.
Park has since reiterated her firm stance that she will take on the illegal strike against a plan to establish a subsidiary of the state-run Korea Railroad Corp. to run new high-speed train services. During a meeting with her senior secretaries Monday, she said that if the standoff was papered over with an “unprincipled compromise,” the nation would be unable to guarantee its economic and social future.
The KCTU, the more militant of Korea’s two umbrella labor organizations, with which the KORAIL union is affiliated, denounced the raid as labor oppression, pledging to launch an all-out strike this weekend. Liberal opposition parties joined the criticism against what they saw as the Park government’s heavy-handed way of dealing with the strike.
KORAIL’s unionized workers walked out on Dec. 9 to protest the plan to set up a subsidiary, which they suspect is part of a privatization scheme despite government denials.
They should stop the illegal strike, which is unrelated to their immediate working conditions. The KORAIL labor union needs to sit down with the management and government officials to discuss measures to ensure the sustainable operation of the state-run railway operator. It is no longer possible to maintain the loose management of the railroad monopoly that has lost an annual average of 500 billion won ($471 million) in recent years, accumulating 17 trillion won in debt ― more than triple its yearly sales of 5 trillion won. Barring privatization, the establishment of a subsidiary with funds from state investors may be the only way to enhance the efficiency of its management.
Though more thorough preparation should have been made, it was not wrong for police to have raided the headquarters of the KCTU that blocked the arrest of railway union leaders, for which local courts had issued warrants last week.
Political circles, particularly opposition parties, should refrain from seeking to make political gains by meddling in the government-labor standoff. Opposition lawmakers may criticize what they see as Park’s uncommunicative way of handling the strike, but at the same time they should point out the illegality of the walkout by railway workers and share concerns about the mismanagement of the railroad monopoly.
It should still be noted that President Park needs to communicate better with the public to make her case. The railway strike may have lost steam earlier if she had held a news conference to give a full account of the government’s position, address workers’ concerns and stress the need to improve the railway management. This attitude is all the more needed to resolve a pile of other labor-management issues like working out new pay systems through a “grand compromise,” as she mentioned Monday.
It is certainly undesirable to make an unprincipled compromise. But a principled compromise based on sincere communication may be what Park needs when dealing with a horde of social and economic conflicts that she needs to sort out throughout the remainder of her presidency.