Striking state power plant workers started returning to work Wednesday, ending a 38-day walkout over government plans to privatize the industry. The government says it will move forward with plans to sell off the industry in line with President Kim Dae-jung's economic reform agenda.
Strike leaders told up to 4,000 power workers to go back to their jobs Wednesday, one day after their labor confederation and the government struck a compromise that averted a threatened countrywide sympathy walkout.
The power workers have decided to suspend their anti-privatization campaign and have agreed that the issue will not be included in collective bargaining. For its part, management has pledged to be lenient in punishing strike organizers. But the labor minister, Bang Yong-seok, said Wednesday the 342 unionists who had been fired will not be rehired.
The government reaffirmed Wednesday that it will push ahead with plans to privatize the industry, despite workers' concerns that this could lead to vast numbers of job cuts. It plans to begin the sell-off later this year so that it can use private funds, instead of public money, to pay for necessary upgrades. The sale of this and other inefficient state firms is a priority for the government as it reforms the economy months ahead of a presidential election.
Hong Nam-ki is a research director for investment bank Morgan Stanley in Seoul. He says that the accord with the power workers gives management the upper hand for future negotiations, but that the workers will at least remain employed for the time being. Management had threatened to dismiss them all last week since strikes by public utility workers are illegal in South Korea. "Things are getting better, but I think people are being realistic, saying it could be far worse than this and that we have to compromise on some items. I think the strikers are being realists," Mr. Hong said. Nevertheless, union leaders are indicating that the privatization issue may resurface in the future. A union spokesman told reporters that the power workers strike succeeded in drawing the public's attention to the sale of public enterprises, hinting at possible future labor action.