The 22,000-strong Cargo Truckers Solidarity, in affiliation with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, have put an end to their walkout eight days after going on a general strike, much to the relief of manufacturers and consumers alike.
To some, economic conditions at home made a settlement in this strike inevitable. The move, however, could set a bad precedent for this government of compromising its own principles of sticking to a market economy and the rule of law.
The government and the union on Tuesday agreed to extend the Safe Trucking Freight Rates System scheduled to be terminated Dec. 31. The system was introduced as a three-year trial to prevent dangerous driving by guaranteeing appropriate freight rates for truck drivers.
The Solidarity went on a strike on June 7, demanding the continuation of this system by removing the sunset clause and expanding the system to all kinds of cargo. Currently, only two items -- containers and cement -- are subject to the system.
The agreement between the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and the Solidarity is a win for the latter.
The government has tried to emphasize that they have extended the current system, rather than expanded it, but the difference is small. The government will also continue discussions to increase the number of cargo items subject to the system, giving the union a powerful means to widen its influence.
On top of this, the government has promised to consider expanding a fuel subsidy system to help truckers cope with the recent rise in oil prices. It has effectively waved a white flag.
To an extent, it is understandable that the government has attempted to limit the damage caused by the strike by agreeing to settle the dispute. What is less understandable, though, is its decision to exclude business representatives from these negotiations. It is estimated that businesses have suffered more than 2 trillion won ($1.5 billion) in losses due to the strike. Some question if the government has the authority to agree on terms that will increase costs for companies using truckers’ services without involving them in negotiations.
The more serious problem is that the government has agreed to the Solidarity’s demand that their members should face “no disadvantages.”
This promise is understood to mean that anyone who participated in the strikes will likely be exempt from civil liabilities and crimes they committed during the strike.
Industries suffered tremendous damage, and the government’s decision not to hold union members accountable for the damage can be seen as unfair.
The deal gives other labor unions the wrong signal -- that the method of striking pursued by the Solidarity is an effective way to get what you want.
This government has claimed to put the principles of market mechanics at the center of its economic philosophy. The freight rate system, however, is a form of price control that can distort autonomous market functions and runs counter to the government’s market-focused principles.
The Solidarity ended its strike, but chaos in industrial logistics could happen again. After this decision, the unions will likely strike whenever they feel that their demands are not being met.
Above all, extraordinary measures are needed to prevent the recurrence of a strike that causes immense damage. It is problematic to exempt the union from responsibility for damage to industries.
In the eyes of labor, the Yoon administration cared more about ending the strike quickly than about the rule of law or the market. The confederation that acted as if they were above the law under the previous administration is certain to make bolder demands down the road. The government must deal sternly with its actions.
And although the government and the Solidarity struck a deal, the extension of the system is a matter of legislation in the National Assembly.
Details are scarce for now. Conflicts -- and walkouts -- may flare up again in the process of working out the details. This time, the Assembly must resolve the issue with a fundamental solution, not with a populist quick fix.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org