Rail workers return to work after prolonged strike

SEOUL, Dec. 31 (Yonhap) -- Thousands of state rail workers returned to work on Tuesday after a three-week-long strike that has partially disrupted train services and set off an intense political tussle.

The longest-ever rail strike in the country's history came to an end on Monday when rival parties secured a breakthrough deal with the labor union chief of the state-run Korea Railroad Corp. (KORAIL) to form a parliamentary subcommittee on preventing the privatization of rail services.

Some 8,700 unionized KORAIL workers began the walkout on Dec. 9 in protest of a government plan to create a subsidiary to run some high-speed train services, which they claim is a precursor to privatization. The government flatly denies it.

Before returning to work, unionized workers attended massive rallies organized by the labor union's regional chapters, vowing to continue to try to block the government's alleged privatization while at work.

"It is the beginning of another fight," a KORAIL union official said during the rally held in central Seoul. "The union will even take legal actions against the government."

The government on Friday issued a formal license for a new affiliate to operate the new high-speed line from Suseo-dong in Seoul to the southern port city of Busan.

In response, 10 union leaders filed a suit against the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, which is in charge of the railways, with the Seoul Administrative Court, demanding that it invalidate the license issuance.

The eight-member subcommittee, which was established with the aim of backing up the government's assurances of no rail privatization, held its first meeting at the National Assembly.

The "subcommittee on rail industry development," attended by lawmakers from the ruling Saenuri Party and the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) as well as KORAIL President Choi Yeon-hye, discussed thorny issues.

Choi showed concerns over the unionized workers' promise to continue protesting against the government and the management move even after they return to work.

"It is deeply worrisome and regrettable that unionized workers vow to continue fighting even after they return to the workplace," Choi told lawmakers during the committee's meeting.

According to KORAIL, 3,580 striking workers, or 40.7 percent of the total workforce, returned to the workplace as of 12:00 p.m. Tuesday.

The rest of the KORAIL striking workers are also expected to head back to the workplace by the end of the day, KORAIL added.

Despite the withdrawal of the strike, KORAIL said that the operation of the bullet-train KTX services as well as other passenger and cargo trains will not return to the normal level until the end of the week.

KORAIL was forced to cut passenger train services by around 24 percent for more than a week, it said. The daily amount of cargo shipments has also dropped to an average of 30 percent of the normal volume.

Police and prosecutors also said they will still continue investigating the union leaders for staging the "illegal" walkout regardless of the dramatic deal reached by the rival parties.

Police said they have arrested one more union leader on Tuesday who had been hiding and defying summons by prosecutors, increasing the number to four. District courts across the country issued arrest warrants for a total of 32 union leaders.

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