16.12.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

End of second general strike by truck drivers in ROK

On December 9, South Korea’s Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union voted to end their 16-day strike. The decision brought to an end the second round of Yoon Suk-yeol’s stand-off with the left-leaning trade unions, which we have already discussed in previous articles. The strikers were demanding permanent status for the current temporary minimum wage scheme, plus an extension of the list of specified cargo types covered by the scheme.

On December 3, it was confirmed that cement deliveries would start up again. In addition, container shipments from 12 major Korean ports have now reached 82% of their usual average level, and the situation in the busiest port in the country, Busan, has almost entirely returned to normal.

The focus of the problem has now shifted, with the main concern now being steel supplies and the oil refinery sector. Some 60 gas stations, in all regions of the country, have entirely run out of fuel, while many others have almost been forced to close.

Against the above background, on December 4 Yoon Suk-yeol instructed civil servants to draft an order requiring truck drivers working in the fuel and steel transportation sectors to return to work, and the following day he called for a “zero tolerance” approach. He claimed that the mass walkout by truck drivers was illegal, as were the drivers’ obstruction of the country’s logistics system and their actions in putting pressure on those of their colleagues who had chosen to continue working.    Refusal to comply with the presidential order is punishable by up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 30 million won ($22,500).

Yoon Suk-yeol compared the threat posed by the truck drivers’ actions to that represented by North Korea’s nuclear missiles, a claim which attracted widespread media attention and prompted the Democratic Party to accuse him of “hostility” towards workers:  “It is horrible that the president felt the cry of those wanting a safe environment for cargo transportation as something equivalent to a nuclear threat.”

The authorities also announced that fuel subsidies for truck operators refusing to carry cargo would be limited, and that such operators would lose their toll road concessions, with both measures to apply for one year.

On December 6, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) called a general strike in 15 locations around the country in support of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union.  According to the KCTU, the government has issued an unconstitutional order requiring drivers to return to work, and is also using the Fair Trade Commission to undermine the strikes by launching investigations at the affected locations.  The organizers of the support campaign have announced large scale demonstrations by workers nationwide in order to counter the government pressure on the strikers.

The demonstrations have turned out to be smaller than predicted, however, with participants numbering some 20,000 in total – 3,500 participants in the largest demonstration and 1,000 each in the others, and this has been interpreted as a sign that the movement is running out of steam.

In response Han Duck-soo, the Korean prime minister, has insisted that the government will “take stern action against any violations by law and principle and accept no compromise with unlawful acts”. He ordered the strikers to return to work and stressed that violence and illegal conduct were unacceptable in any circumstances. He added that the orders requiring drivers to return to work were an essential measure, as the disruption to supplies in the metallurgical and petrochemicals industries were having a knock-on effect on other export sectors, including shipbuilding and the automobile and semiconductor industries.

On December 8, in view of the growing concerns about the national strike, the Democratic Party backtracked on its previous policy of supporting the trade unions and accepted the government’s proposal to extend the minimum freight rates for the cement and container haulage sectors (which were due to expire at the end of this month) by three years. After this retreat by the Democrats the trade union leaders called emergency meetings so that members could vote on how the union should proceed. 61.82% of the participants voted in favor of ending the strikes, while 37.55% voted to carry on. However, only 3,574 of the 26,144 union members voted, and the union’s regional branch in Busan unilaterally decided to end its strike without a vote earlier in the day, protesting the vote constituted an act of “passing the buck” to union members.

On December 9, a spokesperson for the presidential administration welcomed the results of the votes: “The collective action by the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union caused astronomical damage to our economy and people’s livelihoods…However, on the other hand, we all must use it as an opportunity to seek institutional improvements in the cargo industry.” “The government will stick to the law and principles without wavering when it comes to labor-management issues, and do its best to secure jobs for young generations, improve the labor market’s dual structure and create a fair and future-oriented culture in labor and management“, she added.

 It is to be hoped that the parties will now be able to reach a mutually acceptable consensus, especially since the government had admitted that there is a problem with the existing system. As the Conservative-leaning JoongAng Daily puts it “research shows the number of traffic accidents and casualties increased after the introduction of the new rate system. Stakeholders, including the Korean International Trade Association, claim that the rate system only helped increase transport cost without positive effects on safety.”

However, it is perhaps too early to expect a full solution to the problem, as the truck drivers have promised to carry on with their campaign for a safe haulage rates system, and pro-government media insist that the trade union must accept responsibility for the huge losses caused by the walkout, which are estimated at over 3.5 trillion won ($2.6 billion).

We can summarize the results of the standoff as follows:

  • Yoon Suk-yeol and his government have demonstrated their resolve and taken a firmer position than they did during the first strike, without taking things too far. The mass arrests of strikers which were predicted by government critics from the Democratic Party did not take place, and the order requiring drivers to return to work was similar in terms to the order issued back in 2004 by the far more liberal Roh-Moo-hyn administration.
  • Yoon Suk-yeol’s popularity has increased to 41.5%, the first time in the last five months that it has exceeded the 40% threshold.
  • The conduct of the Democratic Party is worth noting: first they spurred on the unions, but once it became clear that this approach would not succeed they decided to compromise. At the end of the day, the truck drivers are back where they launched the strike to protest against the government’s decision to extend the freight rate system (originally introduced by the Democrats) by three years.
  • The number of rank-and-file union members participating in the dispute has also fallen. On November 24 (the first day of the industrial action) 9,600 truck drivers were on strike, but by the last day their number had fallen to 3,300. The low turnout for voting (13.6%) and the high level of support for ending the strike (61.8%) also suggest that the campaign just ran out of steam.
  • As for public opinion, according to a survey by Gallup Korea 71% of respondents said that the truck drivers should first return to work and then negotiate with the government, but 51% also said that the government had handled the recent labor problems badly.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.