Rail workers return to work after prolonged strike

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

The longest-ever rail strike in South Korea came to an end on Monday when rival parties secured a breakthrough deal with the labor union of 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 the claim.

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, all of the striking workers, excluding 32 union leaders with outstanding arrest warrants, had returned to work as of 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.

"The operation of the subway in Seoul and the surrounding areas in Gyeonggi Province will be normalized on Jan. 6 and the number of bullet-train KTX services as well as other passenger and cargo trains will return to normal on Jan. 14," Choi told a press conference.

The KORAIL chief attributed the delayed normalization of services to the need for striking workers to receive minimum safety education before returning to work.

Choi said the management will take legal action against union leaders for financial losses incurred from the strike, estimating them to be around 15 billion won (US$14 million).

The rail operator said it will also go ahead with its plan to take disciplinary action against 490 union members.

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 Tuesday they arrested two more union leaders who had been hiding and defying summons by prosecutors, increasing the number to five. District courts across the country issued arrest warrants for a total of 35 union leaders.

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