(2nd LD) Thousands of labor unionists, supporters stage massive rally in Seoul
SEOUL, Dec. 28 (Yonhap) -- Thousands of rail workers and supporters staged street protests in downtown Seoul on Saturday in protest of what they called a government move to privatize state rail operations that would lead to massive layoffs.
More than 50,000 unionized workers of the state-run Korea Railroad Corp. (KORAIL) have walked off the job since Dec. 9 against the government's decision to set up a separate entity to run a new bullet train line. Workers suspect it as a first step toward privatization.
The protests intensified after the government, ignoring the workers' demand, issued a formal license late Friday for the subsidiary to operate separately from the KORAIL.
With the backing of their umbrella labor union, the rail workers and supporters held a large rally in downtown Seoul and marched into the streets. Organizers estimated the crowd at 100,000 but police put the number at 20,000.
Government authorities mobilized some 13,000 riot police to block the protesters. Dozens of police buses were parked bumper-to-bumper along the street to keep the crowd inside the sidewalks.
"No privatization," the protesters shouted as they sporadically clashed with riot police. There were no immediate reports of injuries or arrests.
The protests were the largest of their kind seen in Seoul in recent years. The workers vowed to continue protests until Feb. 25, the first anniversary of the inauguration of President Park Geun-hye.
After a new round of negotiations with the striking workers ended without progress Friday, the government hardened its stance. The rail operator said it will go ahead with its plan to take disciplinary actions against 490 union leaders.
"First, we will 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 transportation ministry 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."
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.
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."
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.