South Korea may best be known for slick electronics and saccharine pop tunes, but less of that stereotypical effervescence was present in Seoul in December. Instead, the streets were filled with throngs of angry union workers, facing down riot police in a show of defiance against a government plan that they say would lead to layoffs and privatization.
On December 28, workers staged a one-day general strike that capped about three weeks of intense smaller protests involving thousands of workers and activists and causing sharp service reductions. The establishment of a parliamentary committee to resolve the railway dispute has paused the demonstrations for now. But unions, who see the fight as a broader labor struggle beyond the rail issue, are not giving up and have vowed to keep protesting. On Friday, theydemanded the president’s resignation.
In recent months, the government has proposed subdividing and commercializing the national railway, Korail—supposedly a cost-saving measure to deal with the railway’s debt burden and financial losses. Recently, tensions escalated when the government announced plans to split Korail services into separate segments and to create a subsidiary to run part of the high-speed rail service under a separate corporation, which would purportedly stay primarily state-controlled.
Labor activists suspect the claims of financial concerns mask the government’s underlying aim to incrementally privatize the vital public institution, in turn triggering job losses and pay cuts. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the Korean Railway Workers’ Union (KRWU) have also argued President Park Guenhye’s administration pushed through the plan without adequate public or opposition consultation. In response to the government’s railway proposal, rail union workers voted to go on strike on November 22, launching a wave of public rallies and pickets that grew to flood the streets of downtown Seoul. In mid-December, after the Prime Minister declared the strike “illegal,” police began clamping down on union leadershipby issuing arrest warrants and confiscating equipment and documents from several local union offices.
When police then moved on to targeting the headquarters of the umbrella labor organization KCTU, which represents a multi-sector membership of more than 690,000 workers, union activists struck back. Eric Lee of LabourStart reported at OpenSecurity that the activists “formed a defensive cordon but eventually riot police charged the building, smashing down glass doors and firing pepper gas, causing several injuries. There were reports that some of the trade unionists responded with improvised water cannons.”
After the blockade of the KCTU building resulted in 138 arrests of protesters, as Lee put it, “An enraged KCTU leadership issued a call for a million-worker strong general strike.” Internationally, meanwhile, labor activists garnered about 14,500 signatures online on astatement of solidarity.