Korean railway strike: what’s at stake?
Korean railway strike: what’s at stake?
)

On 31 December, thousands of Korean railway workers returned to work after a three-week strike against government plans to set up a subsidiary company to operate a Korean Train express (KTX) service in competition with the state run Korail.

It was the longest railway strike in South Korean history.

Korail management and the right wing administration of President Park Geun-hye cracked down on the strike. Arrest warrants were issued for the leaders of the Korean Railway Workers Union (KRWU) and almost 8,000 workers had their positions suspended or terminated. On 17 December, police raided KRWU headquarters and confiscated computers and documents.

Five days later, 6,000 riot police raided the Seoul headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. Officers smashed their way through the building with tear gas, water cannons and oxygen removal machines. The siege lasted more than 12 hours. Despite more than 130 people being arrested, the police were unable to locate the wanted KRWU officials.

The strike ended after the government agreed to set up a parliamentary committee to discuss the issues that led to the strike.  The leaders of the KRWU are now in jail awaiting sentencing and the government is refusing to drop its plans to set up the subsidiary KTX operator. Korail management also is refusing to drop disciplinary action against workers. The company is pursuing the union for more than $4.6 million in damages.

The government knows that outright privatisation is unpopular. Instead it is cutting off a large chunk of Korail’s revenue by splitting its most profitable operation in half. The KTX line between Suseo Gangnam in Seoul and Pyeongtaek (60km south) is Korail’s busiest and most profitable line. With Korail’s main revenue earner depleted the government can allow Korail to snowball further into debt and use this as a justification to sell public assets at dirt cheap prices.

The government claims that “reform” is needed in order to make the rail system more efficient. It is blaming unions for demanding “unreasonable” wages. Right wing newspapers are running bogus stories claiming the average Korail employee earns more than A$60,000 a year. This “average wage” includes all persons employed by the company, including middle and senior management.

Those involved in the strike were from the lower end of the pay scale. Some workers, such as ticketing agents, are earning as little as $28,000 per year - even after 15 years of service. Since 2005, more than 10 percent of Korail’s workforce has been made redundant and the average wage has actually fallen.

The bulk of Korail’s debt is due to management’s decision to invest in a failed real estate megaproject called the Yongsan International Business Zone. The $31 billion project involved some of South Korea’s largest corporate conglomerates known as the “Chaebol”. The plan was to develop a Dubai-inspired business hub for the mega-rich, with the promise of reviving South Korea’s economic glory days of the 70s and 80s.

The global economic crisis of 2008 hit the project hard. In 2013, Korea’s real estate bubble burst and the entire project had to be abandoned. Thousands of working class people were forcibly evicted and had their homes demolished for the project. Now that the project has failed, workers and the public are to bear the brunt of management’s mistakes.

A lot is at stake in this struggle. The failure of private railway experiments in the UK, Japan and Australia demonstrate that rail privatisation results in the pilfering of public money by corporations. If the government gets its way, it will cut more jobs and smash the KRWU and attack wages across the board. But the KRWU is a proud union with a history of struggle. Militant unionism has won major gains in pay and conditions for railway workers. The fight is not yet over. 

Read more
On the socialist campaign trail
Louise O'Shea

Hundreds of Victorian Socialists volunteers have been staffing early voting polling booths since 14 November, building on the more than 150,000 doors knocked across the north and west of Melbourne during the state election campaign. They are bringing a new style of campaigning to the state election, and have found a constituency of voters fed up with the prevailing pro-corporate, mainstream politics.

WA nurses defiant
Nick Everett

The Australian Nursing Federation will proceed with a ballot of its West Australian members in defiance of an order by the Industrial Relations Commission. If nurses reject the McGowan state Labor government’s below inflation pay offer, they will resume a campaign of industrial action, which was suspended last week.

Workers’ wages squeezed at a record rate
Workers’ wages plummeting
Tom Bramble

The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics confirm that real wages are falling at the fastest rate since the Great Depression, possibly even the 1890s, both period of massive unemployment.

Reclaim the city
Reclaim the city
April Holcombe

“The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be”, Marxist geographer David Harvey writes in his book Rebel Cities. “What kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold”.

Get a socialist into parliament
Sandra Bloodworth

Victorian Socialists—recognised by Beat magazine as “the most left-wing option Victorians have this election”, and by PEDESTRIAN.TV as “Fierce door knockers and grassroots campaigners”—is making a mammoth effort to push against the grain of history in the state election. The party has a chance of getting Jerome Small elected to the upper house in Northern Metro and Liz Walsh in Western Metro. If successful, it will be only the third time a socialist independent of the ALP has been elected to any Australian parliament. 

COP27: yet more blah, blah, blah
Edgar Daniel-Richards

The UN COP27 climate conference is taking place in Egypt, which is an apt choice for a climate conference—a military dictatorship propped up by oil money from Saudi Arabia. And it’s reflected in the outcome.