South Korea truckers on strike

Labor union members from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) participate in a rally on December 3, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

After US Prevents Railway Strike, South Korea Moves to Crush Truckers

"Part of why internationalism is so essential is because of how many international labor struggles can be used to demonstrate to U.S. workers what type of power we have to shut things down," said one labor advocate on the heels of a similar U.S. rail dispute.

An order by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol for thousands of truckers to end their strike last week drew comparisons to a "dictatorship," but Yoon on Monday was preparing to expand the order to truck drivers in the petroleum and steel industries, ignoring their calls for fair pay.

Truck drivers in South Korea have been on strike for nearly two weeks, demanding a permanent adoption of the country's Safe Trucking Freight Rates System (STFRS)--a minimum rate introduced in 2020 that truckers say has allowed them to make a living without increasing their workloads and driving unsafely in order to make a certain number of deliveries.

"Maybe our life can be better if freight rates are stable."

The STFRS had been set to expire at the end of 2022, but truckers forced the government to extend it until the end of 2025 with an eight-day work stoppage in June.

Last week Yoon issued an executive order demanding that cement truck drivers return to work, threatening them with up to three years in jail or fines of up to 30 million won ($22,400).

Despite the threats, truckers across the country defied the order last week, symbolically shaving their heads as they continued the strike. The Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union (CTSU) vowed to take legal action against the government.

The union condemned the start-work order as "martial law that opens the door for dictatorship."

On Monday, Yoon made clear that he is siding with industry groups including the Korea International Trade Association (KITA), the Korea Shipping Association (KSA), and the Korea International Freight Forwarders Association (KIFFA), which have claimed the safe minimum rate introduced in 2020 has made logistics too expensive for shipping and freight companies and have complained that the truckers are harming their ability to comply with delivery deadlines and threaten to disrupt the supply of fuel.

Meanwhile, Yoon has said he will not meet the truckers' so-called "unjustified demands," while administration officials have derided the workers as a "labor aristocracy."

"We are not the enemy. We are loyal to our country, because we are contributing to exports," Kim Young-chan, a 63-year-old container truck driver, toldReuters on Monday. "Our money is stretched to eat and live for a month. Labor aristocracy? That is nonsense."

Kim told the outlet that high diesel prices have left him earning far less than he did last year--about three million won ($2,300) per month--and his wife, who is past retirement age, has had to take on cleaning and cooking jobs to help make ends meet.

"Maybe our life can be better if freight rates are stable," Kim told Reuters.

With Yoon attempting to force truckers back to work, thousands of members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) rallied in front of the national assembly on Saturday and demanded the passage of labor reform legislation.

The truckers' fight for a livable wage comes on the heels of a dispute in the United States between railroad workers and rail carriers over workers' demand for a contract including paid sick leave.

Last week President Joe Biden infuriated labor advocates when he called on Congress to pass legislation adopting a contract including no paid sick days which had previously been rejected by the workers. Biden signed the bill into law on Friday, compelling railroad workers to continue working without their demands being met.

Writer and commentator Tim Shorrock on Saturday noted that the continued work stoppage in South Korea, despite Yoon's earlier order, highlights how disempowered U.S. unions are compared to those in other many other wealthy countries.

"Part of why internationalism is so essential is because of how many international labor struggles can be used to demonstrate to U.S. workers what type of power we have to shut things down," said Sam Carliner of grassroots peace group CodePink.

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