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Railroad Workers Strike Opens a New Chapter in Korea’s Anti-Privatization Struggle

Haesook Kim, Tae Man Park, Jeongeun Hwang, Dae-Han Song

Haesook Kim, Tae Man Park, Jeongeun Hwang, Dae-Han Song

Interview with Tae Man Park by Haesook Kim and translated by Dae-Han Song | March 30, 2014

In protest of government efforts to privatize the railway system, South Korean railway workers launched its longest strike ever, starting December 9, 2013 and lasting 22 days. On January 14, 2014 all thirteen of the leaders of the Railroad Workers strike turned themselves into the police. They are currently held in custody as they await trial. On February 25th 200,000 South Koreans launched a general strike, called by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, to express solidarity with the railway workers and to protest government anti-labor policies. The International Strategy Center ( paid a visit, January 9, 2014 to the railroad workers, then under sanctuary at the Jogyesa Temple, to express their solidarity and conduct this interview. ISC Director, Haesook Kim, interviewed Senior Vice-President of the Korean Railroad Workers Union, Tae Man Park, about his lifelong career in the railroad and last December’s strike. Tae Man sought sanctuary at Jogyesa Temple on December 24th, after the railroad workers strike was declared illegal and arrest warrants were issued for the leadership. The interview was translated by ISC Policy and Research Coordinator, Dae-Han Song.

Haesook Kim: Can you briefly tell us about yourself?

Tae Man Park: My name is Tae Man Park and I am currently the Senior Vice-President of the Korean Railroad Workers Union. I am 55 years old. I started working at the railroads in 1977 after I graduated from railroad high school.

Haesook Kim: Where did you start working after graduation?

Tae Man Park: My first job was at a small county called Mokhang. It was near a fertilizer factory. Back in the day, fertilizer production was very important. I was working in the railroad station next to the biggest fertilizer factory in the country. When fertilizer was produced, it needed to be distributed all over the country.

Haesook Kim: When did the railroad workers’ union start?

Tae Man Park: The union has a very long history starting under Japanese colonialism. After liberation from Japan in 1945, all workers were organized into a national trade union. At that time, our union had the most members. When I first started, the union was a government union so it partook in oppressing and managing workers. Much like the democratization movement at the time, we also initiated a democratization struggle within the union, so that unions would be for workers. In 2001, for the first time, we achieved direct elections. Before that it was a three tiered voting system where union members would elect a branch representative who would elect regional representatives. They, in turn, would elect national representatives. Finally, the national representatives would elect the president.


Haesook Kim: If the first democratic union was formed in 2001, this was right after the 1998 IMF crisis when policies to privatize public companies started emerging. Was there any connection between the democratization of the unions and the anti-privatization struggle?

Tae Man Park: The person we elected union president in 2001 was just 37 years old. Yet, despite his young age he was elected because our slogan at the time was “Will you block privatization, or will you vote for someone privatized?” That’s why our union members elected him.

The President at that time, Kim Dae Jung, had promised privatization in order to receive IMF loans. So he had to privatize the railroads. We went on strike and stopped him. I had become president on May 2001 and then on May 2002 when the strike started, I was dismissed, locked up, spent some time in jail, and then a new president was elected. Roh Moo Hyun came into power. Since there were promises made to the IMF, Roh Moo Hyun also attempted to privatize the railroad. There was another strike against privatization in 2003. Finally, there was an agreement where Roh Moo Hyun wouldn’t privatize the railroad, but he would turn it into a public company instead. This means that we would no longer be public servants. I was reinstated in 2007.

What Park Geun Hye is trying to do right now, is to divide up all the different components of the railway system and then privatize them one by one. This strategy had already been laid out by her predecessors.


Haesook Kim: At the core of the current strike was President Park’s plan to dismantle public ownership of the Suseo KTX line. How did the Suseo KTX line become such an explosive issue?

Tae Man Park: The anti-privatization struggle started in 2002 and it’s been happening for 10 years now. The significance of the Suseo KTX line is that there are only two lines operating in the black right now: Gyeongbu (Seoul to Pusan) KTX and the Gyeongin (Seoul to Incheon) subway line. As an operator you have to ask yourself how much you have to spend to earn 100 won. For the Gyeongin subway line you have to spend about 95 won to make 100 won. So it about cuts even. The rest of the lines are all in the red. In some lines, such as the Jungang line, for which you have to spend 500 won just to make 100 won. However, if we look at the Gyeongbu KTX line, it spends 72 won to make 100 won. This means that they are making a lot of money. We are talking about a near 30% profit. So we take the money earned from the Gyeongbu KTX line to pay for the rest of the lines. Annually that’s about 400 billion won (about 400 million dollars). That’s what we call the cross subsidization system.

The new Suseo KTX line won’t just run from Suseo to Pyeongtaek, it’s going to continue to the Gyeongbu line and Jeolla (Seoul-Yeosu) line. The government estimates that there will be a 500 billion won (about 500 million dollars) drop in revenue because we would lose those passengers living in Pyeongtaek, or those near the new stations between Pyeontaek and Suseo. The Ministry of Transportation expects 140 billion and at the very least 110 billion won (about 110 million dollars) in deficit. So even now we face about 500 billion won in deficit every year. So what are the ways to resolve this deficit, you can either cut the workforce or eliminate the lines in the red. If you don’t cut the workforce, then you must change workers from regular to irregular status. The Incheon airport line [recently created] may be running in the black but only 20% of its workers are regular workers. For the country as a whole it’s going to mean the disappearance of good jobs. This is not the way. We need to stop this.


Critics point out, “You have a stable job; you got your steel rice bowl; why are you fighting?” Those times I want to flip the question. I get good money. I only have three years until retirement. Becoming Senior Vice President [of the union] means that I may have to spend my retirement in prison. Do I have political ambitions? Me, who has not even graduated college become a politician at this age; in a country where education is so esteemed? No. Then why would I become Senior Vice-President when it’s clear that I can get dismissed or end up in jail?

Recently someone calculated. If 10,000 people went on strike and they need three meals a day. It’s about 18,000 won a day per person, and we were striking for 22 days, so just the food costs alone would have been about 400 million won (about 400 thousand dollars). If you calculate the cost of living on the run it’s about the same. If as the critics say we make 60 million won a year then monthly we would make 5 million won. During a strike you get paid nothing. Going on strike for 22 days means that each person suffered 4 million won in unpaid wages. Ten thousand people went on strike. If you calculate it that’s 40 billion won. On top of that, the government wants to fine us for the losses they say they’ve incurred. Not only that we are also being reprimanded, so when we get back our pay, it will be docked. Even with all this, the railroad workers came out to strike.

Haesook Kim: As you’ve mentioned you were on strike for 22 days which would make it the longest railroad strike. What do you think make that possible?

Tae Man Park: Like our President stated in the press, we went on strike on December 9th. The next day KORAIL made the initial investment in the stockholding subsidiary company for KTX Suseo. We thought we would go on strike until the 12th and wrap up. At the longest, we would go until the 14th. Everyone thought so, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the Korean Public & Social Services, the Transportation Union, and the public. Everyone was saying, “They will strike for just a few days.” Even those with all the information like the police or the National Intelligence Service (NIS) probably calculated that we would not strike for very long. They all thought, even if it goes a long time, it won’t last past the 14th. So why did it last so long?


Those of us who had been fighting against privatization for the past 10 years since 2002, asked ourselves, “Isn’t it about time that we fought this properly?” If we don’t fight tooth and nail, then the Suseo KTX is the first stage, the second stage will be to make a logistics subsidiary stockholding company and so on. So that’s what happened internally. That was our internal strength. Externally, before the strike got to the 14th of December, all the conservative media were lambasting us, but on the 14th there was tremendous support from the public. Not only did the public come out and support the strike, but our families also started to support us. Someone told me how his son sent him a Kaotalk message: “I knew my father was a regional leader in the union but I never knew how great he was. I have great respect for him.” This is coming from a junior high kid that most days won’t even talk to his dad. Even the wives, who in the past would tell us, “Stop already. You got punished isn’t it time to go back now?” But now they were asking, “Is everything okay? Make sure you get something to eat.” Public opinion kept moving against privatization. And that sentiment was getting back to our families. So after the 14th, our President said, “Let’s go for another three days.” And all our union members gave the okay. And then on the 16th, the “How are you doing?” movement erupted among college students. They covered many issues, but central was supporting the railroad workers. This sparked further support from the public.

As we passed the 16th, we began getting even more support. So by the 17th, public opinion was behind us, not just about the railroad, but also the overall anti-Park sentiment due to the electoral intervention by the NIS. Every time we asked for dialogue with the President, she would refuse. Instead, she would reprimand us. So, some of us were thinking, “We got this far. Let’s see how far we can take this.”

We struck seven times in the past. We never received public support. But now, the public was worried that we would fold, so they would beseech us, “We will help you! Please keep up the fight!” So there was no way we could stop. The strike was no longer about just stopping privatization; it was about doing it together with the public. Up to now, there had never been a strike that the public supported. That’s how we were able to strike for 22 days. Without that strength, I think we would have folded on the 14th, or the 17th, or the 19th.

I would say that one of the great successes of our strike is that it eradicated the concept of privatization. The government was forced to insist they were not privatizing. They would say, “We are not giving it to the conglomerates, it will be sold to a pension fund.” People would then point out, “But can’t that also be privatized.” So the government would alter their position and say, “Well, then we would just sell the stocks to the public sector. We won’t privatize.” In order to break the strike, the government was forced to keep making all these promises in the media.

Ultimately, we didn’t achieve an agreement to end privatization, but we created the conditions where the government can’t just privatize en masse. Of course privatization continues, but not like before, when the government would justify it saying it would increase efficiency. Now, privatization has become taboo. Secondly, we were able to come together with the public. I think these two were our greatest achievements. So our task ahead would be to search for alternative solutions and to find out how workers can join with the public to set Korea on the right path.


Haesook Kim: A slogan that really moved me was “We leave together, we return together.” Can you speak about this?

Tae Man Park: Well how long a strike goes is determined not by the strongest branches, but by its weakest. If the weakest ones leave one by one, than the strongest branches are isolated and can’t hold out but for a few more days. And then sometimes they blamed each other. But this was not like that. There were some strikers that ended earlier than us, but no one was like, “Why did you quit? Why did you stop?” Rather those that held out would tell the weaker ones, “Good work. Thanks for holding out so long. Only because you held out, could I keep striking.” Furthermore this time the weak branches held out much longer than before, that’s what allowed the strong branches to continue. So we are still saying we all went back in together.

One thing that was different about this strike was that instead of people dropping out as time passed, the numbers increased. Usually, when a strike begins we all go out on strike together. When the government repression starts, slowly one by one people start to go back to work. But this time, instead of decreasing one by one, the numbers increased one by one. I think some people were like, “They are only going to be out a few days longer what’s the point of joining now.” But as the strike dragged on, their thinking changed to, “Shouldn’t I be out there also?” And then you have the public cheering us on. Now it starts to feel strange to not go out. So the numbers increase. In some of the stations, I’ve heard that passengers even confronted workers. “Why aren’t you on strike; are you scabs,” they asked. So out numbers increased as time passed.

Haesook Kim: So about how many workers participated on the strike?

Tae Man Park: Well, if we just look at the number of reprimands then we can tell it was probably about 8,800 workers.  After 2008 there is also a limit to the number of workers in essential public services who can legally go on strike. Before, if there was a disagreement between the employer and employee, it would go to the National Labor Relations Commission. The NLRC would arbitrate and its decision would be binding. If you didn’t obey the decision and went on strike, then it would automatically be an illegal strike. So, in reality collective action wasn’t guaranteed. So, I think in 2007, this binding arbitration system is abolished. The right to collective action was then guaranteed for workers in the public sector, including gas, the railway and electricity workers. So if the management and the workers don’t reach an agreement, these workers can go on strike. But because you are in the essential public service sector, even if you strike, you are required to leave a minimum number of workers on the job. So we have about 20,000 union members, and of these the number of workers that can go on strike is about 12,000.

Haesook Kim: The government claims that your strike was illegal and the union claims it was not. Can you talk more about this?

Tae Man Park: Well both the government and the union agree that the full process was legal. When we went on strike we gave five days’ notice, so that the government could figure out a way to operate the trains. However, the government is saying that it was illegal because of its purpose. The splitting off of the KTX Suseo line is government policy. So from their point of view, a strike against privatization would make it into a political strike which is illegal. But what we have said, as I mentioned earlier, is that if KTX Suseo breaks off, it will decrease revenue by 500 billion won resulting in a 100 billion won deficit. This can’t but deal a blow to our worker rights, whether that means people being cut or the weakening of employee rights. Then clearly this is tied to our union which makes it a legal strike. So for that we get punished under labor law. We are also being charged with “obstruction of business” which the Supreme Court had ruled occurs when a large number of people withhold their labor resulting in great losses. But we asked, “Isn’t any strike an obstruction of business?” So the Supreme Court ruled that as long as enough time to prepare was given, strikes do not count as “obstruction of business.” We definitely gave the five days warning. While there were glitches, ultimately the trains ran smoothly. So this is completely legal. So there’s a lot that can still be disputed both for the “obstruction of business” and around the purpose of the strike.


Haesook Kim: As regards to ending the strike on December 28th, there were differing opinions. Some people were thinking “They [the union] did their part, now it’s the public’s duty to block privatization.” Others thought, “The strike awakened something in the public, ending it will dampen that movement.” What do you as the Senior Vice-President, as an individual, think?

Tae Man Park: Even until the morning of the 28th, a friend was asking “couldn’t the union have held out just a little longer?” But by the afternoon, after discussions he was saying, “You all did great. You did all you could.” As people find out more about the internal conditions, they start to understand.

Haesook Kim: Can you speak about those conditions?

Tae Man Park: Well, since that information is not yet public, I’m hesitant to get into the details. But if you looked at it on a surface level, while we go in by [geographic] branch, this time we also went in by work sector (vehicle inspectors and mechanics, the drivers, the ticket sellers, maintenance, the electricians). So many of the workers were feeling that, “We fought the best we could. We suffered a lot.” On December 27th, at 9:00 AM, the head of KORAIL issued an ultimatum that if workers did not return by midnight, then it would be assumed they would not be returning. Then later that day at 9:00 PM the subsidiary stockholding company received their license. With this ultimatum workers started asking themselves, “Will continuing for a few more days force the Park government to give up its privatization plans?” They had waged their strongest attack on us. So the mood among our members became, “We have done all that we can. We have let the public know about this sufficiently.” And people started going back to work by branch. The engineers [driver] and the sector that inspects and fixes the actual train cars kept striking. Sure, if the engineers don’t go back then the trains couldn’t run. So, the police would go looking around for them, persuading them and threatening them. So we start seeing this. On the 27th, our President gets 72 more hours, and by pressuring the Unified Democratic Party and the Saenuri Party he gets them to agree to establish a subcommittee on the issue of privatization. Would the other side have kept going until the end without even conceding that? I don’t know since we didn’t take that path. We never expected to last this long. The opposition party even stated that they would block the budget if necessary.

Of course, this is all just my personal opinion. We would need to do an official evaluation to delve deeper.

Yesterday some of the branch leadership turned themselves in to the police. So, the national leadership are still discussing about turning themselves in. There’s still some issues that we need to resolve and monitor, such as: the reprimands, the lawsuit, the restitution they are demanding from us, and the subcommittee agreement in the National Assembly. There’s also the promise of compensating the trains for the 100 billion won deficit that it might suffer. So there are still a lot of things that we need to deal with.

Haesook Kim: So it may take a while…

Tae Man Park: Yes, very likely so.

Haesook Kim: As you mentioned, this strike could mean that you retire in prison and you don’t have any political ambitions. What was your personal commitment when you joined in this strike?

Tae Man Park: I came into the trains when I was 19. I think I am indebted to the railroad. I raised my kids by working in the railroad, I took care of my parents, married off my youngest son, put my oldest through college working in the railroad. Through the railroad, I gained my social consciousness and my sense of social responsibility. I have to repay my debt. That is what’s in my heart. Leave together return together. I received so much from the railroad. And of course the railroad is funded by taxpayers, so my indebtedness goes back to the people. I have to pay back this debt. What can I do? I can block its privatization. I’m not going to call it sacrifice, but I would put my body on the line if need be to fight this. I think that’s how I will pay back this debt. So, while I seek refuge at Jogyesa Temple, I will do this in high spirits and with joy.


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