Nurses join South Korea national strike

Thousands of nurses and hospital workers walked out of their jobs today, escalating a one-day-old nationwide strike that has crippled South Korea’s two airlines.

Thousands of nurses and hospital workers walked out of their jobs today, escalating a one-day-old nationwide strike that has crippled South Korea’s two airlines.

After overnight negotiations with their unions broke down, Korean Air and Asiana Airlines said they had to curtail by more than half their scheduled flights for a second straight day.

The protests were part of a nationwide strike called by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions to press demands for wage rises and better employment conditions.

The confederation, which has been responsible for many violent protests, predicted that the second-day strike would be bigger than the first-day walkout which it claimed drew 55,000 workers from 125 locations.

The Government said, however, that the number of the second-day strikers could be smaller than predicted by the confederation after four hospital unions reached agreement on wage hikes in overnight negotiations.

Strike organisers said 3,200 nurses, clerks and utility workers walked off their jobs Wednesday. By June 20, about 7,000 more were scheduled to join the strike.

Despite the strike, essential staffers will continue to man emergency and delivery rooms and intensive care units, they said.

In addition to financial benefits, workers complain that corporate reforms, pushed by President Kim Dae-jung, are causing mass lay-offs. Kim says restructuring is a painful yet inevitable medicine for the economy, which is recovering from the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis.

Besides the airlines, most of the other worksites affected by the indefinite walkout were in the metals and chemical industries.

The focus of the labour protests was seen as the participation of the pilots’ union of Korean and Air and the non-pilot union of Asiana Airlines which sought wage hikes of up to 21%.

The airline strike is the worst in South Korea’s aviation history. Korean Air’s pilots’ union ended a one-day strike last year after getting a hefty 44% pay hike.

For the second straight day, Korean Air, the nation’s largest carrier, had to cancel flights. Today it halted 66 of its scheduled 356 domestic and international flights. Asiana’s international flights were unaffected but its domestic flights were cut by half.

Korean Air, the world’s second-largest air cargo carrier, also cancelled 17 of its 22 international cargo flights today.

No serious confusion was reported at airports, however, as many passengers changed or cancelled their reservations in anticipation of the strike.

The Government has ruled the strike illegal and promised stern legal action.

Officials said the walkout was called without going through mandatory arbitration by a mediation body that is ostensibly neutral but is regarded by labour leaders as pro-government and pro-management.

State prosecutors, armed with court-issued warrants, were trying to arrest 14 Korean Air union leaders.

Korean Air’s 1,400-member pilots’ union dropped its demand for a 21% pay hike. But it demanded a say in the hiring of foreign pilots and said they should gradually be phased out.

Korean Air has 200 foreign pilots. The airline said it could not allow the union’s involvement in management affairs.

Asiana’s strike involved 2,300 ground crew staffers, flight attendants and ticketing clerks. But the airline has 4,500 non-unionised workers that can fill in for the strikers.

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