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The Peninsula

Strikes Without Bite

Published October 28, 2019
Author: Korea View

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • From October 7 to October 9 workers on Line 9 of the Seoul Metro went on strike, demanding the recognition of security personnel as full-time employees and other rights.
  • The strike ended when the union negotiated a 5.7% base pay raise as well as additional benefits.
  • Despite 125 workers participating in the strike, the metro reported no delays. This can be attributed to a law that requires unionized workers in the Seoul metro to continue running a portion of trains throughout the day.

Implications: The metro strike provided a glimpse into why labor unions in South Korea wield so little bargaining power. In addition to laws that require metro workers to provide uninterrupted operations during rush hour, the city deployed non-unionized substitute workers to affected stations and a fleet of buses in preparation for any possible disruptions. Union leaders accurately interpreted the mandatory operation of trains as “neutralizing” the impact of the strike.

Part of the weakness also stems from unions being organized by locality and corporation. For instance, Line 9 of the Seoul Metro went on strike without the support of other lines or other public transportation workers. This prevents industry-wide actions and bargaining, which is more common in Western labor markets.

Context: Although the Line 9 strike has been resolved, Korean commuters are not quite in the clear yet. Unionized workers on Lines 1-8 plan to strike October 16-18, and those working on the Seohae line, a commuter line into Seoul, plan to strike on October 15. The Korean Railway Workers’ Union also went on strike over the weekend. Operating capacity of KTX trains fell to around 72.4%. However, as with the strike on Line 9, the government’s auxiliary measures mitigated its impact on commuters.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

Image from user LERK on Wikimedia Commons

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