Seoul subway workers lead anti-sacking campaign

Issue 

South Korean prosecutors are trying to arrest at least 20 leaders of the Seoul subway workers' union, including its president Seok Chi-soon, as part of an attempt by the South Korean government and big business to stop a Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) campaign against mass sackings.

Ten thousand subway workers and 15,000 other KCTU members began indefinite strikes on April 19, with the federation planning to have all 550,000 of its members on strike by May Day, May 1.

The subway workers' strike followed all-night union meetings at their depots, while negotiations were being held with management about its proposal to sack more than 2000 workers.

The union negotiators proposed that the talks on restructuring be started from scratch. The Seoul Subway Corporation and the city government responded that they had no authority to start such negotiations after President Kim Dae Jung's Planning and Budget Board had warned the corporation that failure to comply with its directive to "reduce the size of the work force by 20%, as set down for all public corporations, would mean a severe reprimand and official rebuke".

To stop the strike, the government sent 7000 riot police to the depots to arrest union leaders and force the subway drivers to operate the trains, but the workers had dispersed before the police arrived. The union leaders and 1300 subway drivers moved to the Myongdong Cathedral for a sit-in until the campaign finishes.

The corporation has responded to the strike by suspending 81 leaders of the union and lodging legal complaints against 86. The government has brought in military personnel and National Railway Authority staff to drive the subway trains and government employees to staff the stations. However, metalworkers at companies producing subway and train locomotives are implementing union bans on driving and maintaining the trains.

At a media conference on April 19, KCTU president Lee Kap-yong said the government should "start responsible negotiations with the KCTU to avoid any further disruption". The KCTU position, he said, is that "a genuine restructuring must be founded on a thorough reform of the dynastic chaebol system and the corrupt political and economic systems".

Lee denounced the government for "stubbornly ... insisting on indiscriminate mass lay-offs, drastic cuts in wages and benefits, and unilateral abrogation of collective agreements, all in the name of 'restructuring'".

He also condemned the attitude and behaviour of the city government in its negotiations with the subway workers' union, which, he said, "revealed that they are totally powerless to negotiate over the central issues because they are strictly directed by the central government, especially the Planning and Budget Board".

The KCTU's stance was supported at a special April 18 news conference by representatives of 55 social movement organisations. On April 19, their representatives visited the Planning and Budget Commission to urge negotiations with the union, but commission chairperson Jin Nyum avoided meeting them. They then called on the government to stop orchestrating a situation where worker-police confrontation may break out.

The cathedral sit-in will be the focus of daily actions by other subway workers and KCTU members. The subway workers have vowed to meet daily for street rallies.

Some 15,000 workers rallied on April 19 at the Seoul Central Station mall and marched to the cathedral. One subway worker told the rally, "We must sustain the strike at least for 15 days, until all workers join in". Another worker declared, "This strike will set the conditions for workers for the next 10 to 20 years".

On April 20 and 21, metalworkers and vehicle-building workers, also threatened by restructuring, began a strike. On those days, 2000 metalworkers travelled from southern cities to join the protests in Seoul. Telecom and broadcasting workers have also voted to strike from April 26, and 3000 telecommunication unionists have joined the rallies.

By April 22, 5000 subway maintenance, engineering and station staff were encamped at Seoul National University ready to oppose to attempts by police to drag them back to work. Workers from a range of other sectors are also planning to strike.

[Compiled from information provided by the KCTU.]