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South Korean strikes ease, but unions vow more protests

Controversial labor law officially enacted

In this story: December 30, 1996
Web posted at: 12:20 p.m. EST (1720 GMT)

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- Striking subway drivers and nurses began drifting back to work on Monday, but car and shipbuilding plants were still idled by the fifth day of widespread labor strikes that threatened South Korea's economy.

Union leaders vowed to escalate their protests after the new year holiday.

"We will take our strikes to a higher level and prolong them starting in the new year," said Kwon Young-kil, head of the outlawed Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.

The much larger Federation of Korean Trade Unions, which called its 1.2 million members out on strike until the end of the year, said it would announce details on Tuesday on "an escalated second stage which would include the public sector."

Government says law needed for economy

The strikes began Thursday when ruling party members in South Korea's Parliament passed a law that workers fear will threaten their jobs. It allows companies to lay off workers, replace strikers, and hire temporary staff.

The law was adopted in a secretive, pre-dawn session, with no opposition party members present.

The government made the law formal on Monday by approving it at a Cabinet session. Prime Minister Lee Soo-sung, in a televised speech on Monday, warned workers that "legal countermeasures" would be taken to stop strikes.

Lee defended the law, saying it was the only way to boost South Korea's fragile economy.

"We chose the law to prevent our offspring from falling behind developing countries," Lee said. "We could not watch companies go bankrupt and corporations move offshore, causing major job losses."

Back to work, but for how long?

Striking subway drivers in Seoul and South Korea's second- biggest city, Pusan, returned to their posts on Monday after a short strike failed to disrupt services. Non-union workers had kept trains moving.

Subway unions are discussing a renewed strike in January, and the Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit, which runs three new lines in Seoul, has already declared a 48-hour strike starting on Saturday.

Hospital unions decided to suspend their action on Tuesday, although some nurses and orderlies began returning to their wards on Sunday and more joined them on Monday.

Transport and medical unions said they were suspending industrial action to spare the public from chaos over the New Year holiday period.

Student involvement

Students, who have kept a low profile since a major crackdown by the government in August, took to the streets to support workers.

Chanting anti-government slogans, 1,000 students rallied in Myung-dong, Seoul's commercial center, witnesses said. They sat in a pedestrian zone and faced a wall of riot police in full gear armed with tear gas rifles.

Earlier, riot police grabbed shopkeepers who they mistook for students, prompting a protest from fellow merchants, according to witnesses. Some stores closed in anticipation of clashes, but the rally ended peacefully.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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