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(LEAD) Railway strike intensifies after botched negotiation

2013/12/28 14:33

SEOUL, Dec. 28 (Yonhap) -- A standoff between South Korea's state-run rail operator and its labor union intensified Saturday after the government issued a license for a new affiliate, which unionists fear will lead to privatization and layoffs.

Railroad workers at the Korea Railroad (KORAIL) have been waging a sit-in since Dec. 9 against the company's decision to establish a separate entity to run a new bullet train line, the longest-ever strike for the country's railroad.

Prime Minister Chung Hong-won (C) holds a meeting of ministers to discuss measures to deal with the prolonged strike by the labor union of the state-run Korea Railroad on Dec. 28, 2013. (Yonhap)

The company's management and labor union leaders on Friday held a meeting to resolve the conflict, but they failed to narrow differences. Shortly after, the government announced it issued a license for the affiliate and warned the striking workers of punitive measures.

On Saturday, the company said it will take disciplinary actions against those who led the walkout and demand compensation from damages incurred from the prolonged strike.

"First, we will hold a disciplinary committee to give heavy punishment for 490 labor union officers," Jang Jin-bok, KORAIL's spokesman, said in a briefing. "Punishment will vary depending on their involvement and timing of their return to work."

   The company said it will also push for legal actions to demand compensation for financial damages and seek criminal punishment for the union leaders.

The labor union strongly condemned the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport for issuing the controversial license, saying it is "a declaration of war" against the people. The ministry is in charge of the railways.

"The government ignored the labor union's efforts to resolve the conflict without negotiations to abruptly issue the license in the middle of the night," KORAIL union chief Kim Myung-hwan said in a briefing at the headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) in downtown Seoul.

Kim said his union will immediately submit a lawsuit to nullify the government decision, saying the hasty license issuance has "procedural flaws" and is "illegal."

   If the license is not revoked, Kim warned that the labor union will continue the strike throughout the year, calling for government, management and labor circles to continue to discuss the privatization issue.

In response to the deepening conflict, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won convened a meeting of Cabinet members of related ministries to discuss ways to deal with the prolonged strike during the peak year-end season.

Among them were the ministers of economy, land and transport, labor, justice, home affairs and industry, according to government officials.

Chung said the establishment of the KORAIL affiliate is aimed at benefiting people by introducing competition to the nation's rail industry.

"The government tries to adopt the competition system despite the labor union's opposition because it would ultimately be good for people," Chung said. "I'm asking the people to support the government policy and endure the inconveniences for a little longer."

   He also called for law enforcement agencies to sternly deal with violent strikes as labor circles pledged to hold large rallies in the capital city throughout the weekend.

His remarks come as the weeks-long strike has caused a major disruption for commuters and for cargo transportation, in particular.

Passengers across the country experienced inconvenience after KORAIL was forced to cut passenger train services by around 24 percent for the fifth day in a row on Friday.

The daily amount of cargo shipments has dropped to an average of 30 percent of the normal volume, stoking concerns over the impact on the shipping industry.