Two of the three unions of Seoul Metro, which operates the subway service in Seoul, announced a plan to strike during a press conference Wednesday.
After labor dispute mediation by Seoul National Labor Relations Commission ended without results on Tuesday, two Seoul Metro unions -- one affiliated with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the other with the Federation of Korean Trade Unions -- jointly declared that they have decided to go on a strike on Nov. 9 for all eight Seoul subway lines.
Earlier in a vote held by the unions from Oct. 12-16, 73.4 percent of their members supported the walkout plan.
If further labor-management negotiations fall through, the unions are likely to begin the general strike next month as they announced.
The main issue is Seoul Metro's plan to reduce its workforce. As a way to normalize its operations, which currently run at a loss, Seoul Metro came up with plans to cut back its workforce by 13.5 percent, or 2,211 employees, by 2026, as well as plans to outsource some of its work. It argues that downsizing is inevitable, considering its accumulated deficit of 17 trillion won ($12.5 billion) as of last year and its impaired capital.
But the two unions oppose the plans, claiming a drastic cut in the workforce could lead to safety issues and that the management is trying to shift blame for Seoul Metro's financial difficulty to labor.
However, a recent Seoul Metropolitan Government inspection found that many executive members of the two Seoul Metro unions received wages unjustly through paid time off.
The unions agreed with Seoul Metro to set the maximum number of union members eligible for paid time off at 32, but 315 members took time off. The wage these workers received for five years through time off is estimated to total around 84 billion won. The number of accumulated days union members did not work last year independently of time off to engage in union activities when they were scheduled to work is said to total 4,418. This shows that under the pro-labor previous administration, unions were not strictly controlled.
It is unclear if they are qualified to oppose downsizing when they abuse time off to receive wages without doing their job.
The latest third union of the Seoul Metro led by employees in their 20s and 30s raises the same question about the qualification of the leadership of the two unions to oppose restructuring. It opposes their strike plan.
The third union, generally called an "MZ union" because it consists mostly of millennials and Generation Z, blames Seoul Metro's financial troubles on skyrocketing payroll costs and related organizational inefficiency. It argues that the root cause of soaring labor expenses is the previous Moon Jae-in administration's pressure on public enterprises to turn all non-regular contract workers into regular employees.
Looking at past behavior of the unions affiliated with the nation's two largest umbrella labor groups, what the MZ union said is not wrong. Under Moon's "zero non-regular worker" policy, Seoul Metro changed 1,285 contract workers into regular employees in 2018. In that process, irregularities were rampant. About 15 percent of those who were converted into regular staff were found to be relatives of regular employees. The unions did not care about the swelling financial burden on the company. Rather, they supported the conversion actively.
In the eyes of subway riders, their walkout announcement sounds absurd. Despite concerns about high inflation, Seoul City raised basic subway fees from 1,250 won to 1,400 won on Oct. 7 for the first time in eight years. Then, just 10 days after the fee hike, the two unions threatened a strike. They refuse to swallow bitter pills such as downsizing and other self-rescue measures when passengers have to bear increased transportation expenses.
As the MZ union alleges, it is true that Seoul Metro has been bloated by the conversion of non-regular workers to regular staff. It is hard to sympathize with a strike for the sole purpose of protecting increased jobs of unionized workers without efforts on their part to help themselves, and without the consideration of citizens who have to cover the losses of their company.