The Park Geun-hye administration has earned the honor of being the first government to storm the headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Union (KCTU) since the union was founded in 1995.
The police stormed the building to execute an arrest warrant nine members of the leadership for the Korean Railway Workers’ Union (KRWU), which has been striking for half a month. Using pepper spray, some 5,000 officers seized the 18-story building, defeating a spirited defense by about 120 members of the railroad union, KCTU and the Unified Progressive Party.
And the payoff for the government’s highly ostentatious use of force? Not a single one of the nine KRWU leaders wanted by authorities were found. The Park administration did, however, solidify its reputation in some quarters of the population as one whose political proclivities lean oh-so-slightly to the authoritarian. Or as the Hankyoreh put it:
Another of the government’s aims is to draw a clear line that extends beyond the KRWU to all members of the labor community who oppose the administration’s policies. While the KCTU, KRWU, and civil society in general have proposed setting up a “social dialogue” framework to address the key issue in the privatization furor – the establishment of a KORAIL subsidiary – the government’s response has instead been an ostentatious use of force. In effect, it has shown that it intends to respond to the debate by putting physical force ahead of dialogue.
“The government should be the ones initiating dialogue,” said a KRWU source on condition of anonymity. “Instead, they’ve issued what amounts to a declaration of war. They refuse to even recognize the body that is the supreme representative of unions, viewing it as an enemy instead.”
Good job, guys.
Mind you, there is another side to this story, and places like the Chosun Ilbo are all too happy to write seven-paragraph editorials in support of said side. The Chosun notes that no country would tolerate protesters violently blocking the execution of an arrest warrant (probably true, but on the other hand, I’m not sure how many countries would consider a strike like the KRWU’s illegal), that the government isn’t trying to privatize KORAIL, and at any rate the strike is less about privatization and more about the union blocking reform in order to protect its iron rice bowl (also probably true, IMHO). KORAIL’s personnel costs continue to rise—the company even pays out bonuses—despite a debt that’s triple its annual sales. Attempts to private the operation side of KORAIL go back to the DJ administration, and there are several examples of public corporations adopting a competition model to improve service and/or lower costs—see Korea Airports Corporation ve. Incheon International Airport Corporation and Seoul Metro vs. Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation.
Even granting all this, it’s hard to see how such a spectacular show of force—and a failing one at that—is going to help matters, especially considering that the government is going to need to work with labor unions in order to realize its economic reform initiatives.