Cargo truck drivers in South Korea have repeatedly gone on strikes to protect their livelihood against a conservative government bent on eroding the power of unions. We explain why their struggles are so important, how the government has wielded its power to attack unions, and what unions are doing to push back against the attacks.
On November 24, 2022, Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union (CTSU) announced that 22,000 of its members – six percent of the nation’s truck drivers – would stop work for the second time in less than six months. Back in June, following an eight-day strike, the union and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport had reached a tentative agreement, but a lack of serious government action pushed the union to renew its struggle.
At the crux of the union’s demands was a commitment to extending the Safe Trucking Freight Rate System indefinitely. This system came into effect in January 2020 as part of an experiment to improve road safety. Generally, drivers are classified as ‘self-employed’ or ‘specially-employed workers.’ They may work under contract with a specific transport company but are technically their own boss. Transport companies do not usually provide drivers with a truck. It is up to them to purchase their vehicle, maintain it, and ensure they meet licensing and commercial plate requirements. All of this is costly and is becoming more so with gas price inflation.
By guaranteeing minimum transport rates for transport companies (paid by clients) and minimum contracting rates for drivers (paid by transport companies), the system intends to improve working conditions for drivers, who are not otherwise protected under the nation’s labour laws. Drivers would be in a better position to pay off their business costs and maintain their livelihoods, and therefore be incentivized to lighten their cargo loads, stop driving when fatigued, and follow speed limits.
However, under the Trucking Transport Business Act (TTBA), the system is set to expire on December 31, which raised the stakes of securing an extension. Amidst its strike, the CTSU garnered support from the opposition Democratic and Justice parties. Lawmakers from these parties argued that the truckers’ livelihoods were not transitional and that eliminating the sunset clause in the TTBA would prevent social conflict from arising in the future. But the Democratic Party eventually backed away from this position and supported the government’s stance.
The government’s position was that it would be premature to indefinitely extend the safe freight system, without empirical evidence to back up its effect on industry structure, working conditions, and road safety. As a compromise, it offered an extension of three additional years, conditional on the union ending its strike. As this offer was rejected the union, negotiators reached a deadlock and the strike was prolonged.
Cargo Truckers Solidarity is a subsidiary of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union, which is affiliated with the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). KCTU is the country’s second largest umbrella union. It has held rallies demanding that Yoon Seok-yeol resign as President and has a track record of calling more strikes and protests than its rival, the Federation of Korea Trade Unions (FKTU). FKTU is a “yellow” union that is more employer friendly and was the sole national union officially recognized by Korea’s non-democratic regimes.
While this latest strike was led by CTSU, it did receive limited support from some non-union members as well as KCTU affiliates, such as the Korean Construction Workers’ Union (KCWU).
Growing Pressures on the Unions
Six days into the strike, Won Hee-ryong, Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, issued an unprecedented return to work order under Article 14 of the TTBA. It applied to 2,500 truck drivers employed by 200 companies in the cement sector. Under this order, workers who failed to return to work would be subject to criminal prosecution of up to three years imprisonment and a fine of up to 30 million won. Licenses and certifications could also be stripped in the event of non-compliance. The return-to-work order was eventually extended to 10,500 drivers employed by companies in the steel and petrochemical sectors.
On December 9, with more than half of the union facing a forced return to work, a vote was held across 16 locations nationwide to determine whether the strike should continue. The result saw 62 percent in favour of returning to work, and 38 percent opposed. The vote ended their 16-day strike action. Whether the outcome truly reflected the positions of those striking remains unclear. Only 3,574, or less than 14 percent, of the CTSU’s 26,144 members cast ballots.
In the lead-up to the vote, fissures had already erupted between the union’s regional branches, and amongst the rank-and-file. Some truckers, in sectors affected by the government’s return-to-work orders quietly bowed out of the strike rather than risk punishment for violating the sanctions. Meanwhile, the Busan regional branch boycotted the vote and returned to work unilaterally, arguing that union leadership was unfairly foisting its decision-making responsibility on the rank and file.
Apart from the looming expiration of the Safe Trucking Freight Rate System, public sentiment following the 10.29 tragedy at Itaewon may have encouraged the CTSU, with support from the KCTU, to organize this latest mobilization. In the weeks leading up to the strike, President Yoon Seok-yeol’s approval rating remained below the mid-30 percent range, and large candlelight vigils were held demanding his resignation.
Other workers were set to go on strike as part of the KCTU’s first nationwide strike in six years, but the effort fizzled out before it could gain much traction given public backlash. At large chaebols, including Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering and Hyundai Steel, workers did not participate. Meanwhile, at Hyundai Heavy Industries Group, a deal regarding wages and compensation was struck with management to keep 11,000 shipbuilders working. Unionized subway workers returned to work within a day of starting to strike after non-unionized workers agreed to a deal. Successful overnight negotiations also stopped workers at the Korea Railroad Corporation from going through with their walkout.
The Strike’s Impact
The strikes made significant impact, especially amid Korea’s deteriorating economic situation. Interest rates were hiked to a decade high in October as the won weakened and inflation surged. As strike-related losses snowballed, the country’s export-driven economy was hit. According to the government, the CTSU caused $1.25 billion (1.6 trillion won) in economic losses during its June strike. These losses spanned across industries, including petrochemicals, steelmaking, auto manufacturing, and cement production, among others. The government forecasted that its second strike would cost the economy some $225 million (300 billion won) every day it continued.
At the height of the strike, just before the first round of failed negotiations between the government and CTSU, the transportation ministry upgraded the crisis rating for land freight transportation to the highest of four levels, citing disruptions to logistics networks nationwide. Container imports and exports stood at 49% of normal levels at 12 South Korean ports, with three virtually closed. In the booming construction industry, cement and ready-mixed concrete were transported at 11 and 15% of normal rates, respectively. Over half of the nation’s 912 construction sites stopped pouring ready-mixed concrete, precipitating shutdowns nationwide. Members of the CTSU accounted for 70 to 80% of truckers that deliver fuel to four of South Korea’s largest oil refiners. On December 5, at the height of the strike, 96 petrol stations concentrated in Seoul and its suburbs, had run out of gasoline and diesel.
Thus, the government turned to repression, believing that unless it took harsh action economic stagflation would spiral and investor confidence would be destroyed heading into 2023.
Mass mobilization, which was the predominant form of dissent during the authoritarian period, continues to be the preferred way to convey interests and concerns to the government. Strikes are one of the most visible manifestations of collective action. In South Korea, Article 33(1) of the Constitution and Article 1 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Adjustment Act (TULRAA) acknowledge the right of workers to engage in collective action, which encompasses striking. This, however, is conditional and restricted by Article 314 of the Criminal Code and Articles 4 and 42 of TULRAA which disallow interference or acts of violence that may result in the stoppage or interruption of business operations.
Weapons against Unions
The legality of a strike depends on it being led by a recognized trade union and a majority of the union’s members approving the action through a vote. In addition, strikes cannot be carried out for political purposes, to interfere with state governance, or to demonstrate solidarity action (i.e., sympathy strike).
Throughout the CTSU’s strike, the government repeatedly characterized the strikes as ‘illegal’ and ‘violent.’ President Yoon Seok-yeol went so far as to liken the striking truckers to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, while a spokesperson for his office accused the KCTU of carrying out illegal activities that “do not conform with the identity of [Korea and its] people.”
As the CTSU’s strike entered its final days, the Secretary-General of the ILO informed the Korean government via correspondence that invoking Article 14 of the TTBA contravened cement truck drivers’ freedom of association rights, and that penal sanctions should not be imposed on any worker found in defiance. This letter encouraged the government to resolve the dispute in compliance with principles emanating from Convention No. 87 and 98, which entered into force in Korea in April 2022.
President Yoon’s legal background and business-friendly posture influenced his government’s decision to break the strike through the adoption of a rigid position, based on ‘rules and laws’ and using hitherto-unused powers. What is concerning was the government’s blatant indifference to the ILO’s input. The Deputy Prime Minister downplayed the letter as no more than an opinion, while the Ministry of Economy and Labour said, “This is just part of a normal procedure, where they notify the country in question when its labour community raises issues with the ILO.”
In 2009, workers affiliated with the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU) initiated a ‘strike-unto-death’ at SsangYong Motors to protest the debt-laden company’s mass layoff of 2,646 employees or 37 percent of its labour force after it was put in court-receivership. The strike lasted for 77 days and saw the occupation of SsangYong’s manufacturing plant in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi province. With approval from then-President Lee Myung-bak, the National Police Agency was deployed to suppress the workers. They did so violently, in a quasi-military style using large quantities of tear gas, anti-terrorist weapons, and multipurpose launchers, while turning a blind eye to thug attacks by the company’s security guards.
Once the strike was suppressed, the law came down hard on those who had participated. In November 2013, a lower court ruled that KMWU members would have to pay 4.78 billion won in damages to the company and the police. On top of this, they were ordered to pay five percent interest for the period before the ruling and 20 percent for the period after it. Liens were placed on 2 billion won worth of assets held by 93 individual union members.
Having been deprived of their jobs and with their livelihoods paralyzed by the court’s freezing of their assets, at least 30 strikers committed suicide. It was not until November 30, 2022, that the Supreme Court overturned the damages that the strikers owed to the police. An appeal in a separate suit against the KMWU is still pending, while another against individual strikers by SsangYong was withdrawn following mediation.
Yellow Envelope Law
In the background of the recent CTSU strike, lobbying for the ‘Yellow Envelope Law,’ gained new traction. The proposal for this law has its roots in a 2014 grassroots fundraising effort that a housewife initiated to help SsangYong strikers pay off the Court ordered damages.
Proponents of the ‘Yellow Envelope Laws’ charge that Yoon’s People’s Power Party is undermining workers’ right to engage in collective action and that indemnification suits can financially cripple unions, their representatives, and members.
If passed, the Yellow Envelope Law would amend Articles 2 and 3 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Adjustment Act (TULRAA). Chaebols, including Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering and Hyundai/Kia, have cited these two articles as grounds for their suits against in-house subcontractors and specially employed persons who go on strike.
Revising Article 2 would expand the definition of employers to include those responsible for subcontractors since the law only recognizes the traditional employee-employer relationship at present. An amended Article 3 would impose an absolute ban on employers claiming damages against trade unions or individual workers.
But with the dysfunctional state of the National Assembly, in which the opposition Democratic Party holds a majority, the warning of a presidential veto makes it doubtful that lawmakers will certify any amendment to the current laws.
Negotiation is off the table, and the government has shown that it is not interested in a dialogue with workers as it eyes further labour reforms. Unions need to have a voice in the system to protect workers’ rights and interests, and the government must stop treating unions as an enemy against whom the ‘rule of law’ ought to be weaponized for their labour activism.
Yang Kyung Kyu’s Year in Review: on the truckers’ strike and its meaning for the Korean labor movement
Platform Workers on Strike in South Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand: on the platform workers’ strike in Korea