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President signs executive order to force striking truckers back to work

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President Yoon Suk-yeol bangs the gavel to begin a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Yongsan District, Seoul, Tuesday. Yoon signed an executive order to force unionized truckers, who have been staging strikes since Nov. 24, to return to work. Courtesy of the presidential office
President Yoon Suk-yeol bangs the gavel to begin a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Yongsan District, Seoul, Tuesday. Yoon signed an executive order to force unionized truckers, who have been staging strikes since Nov. 24, to return to work. Courtesy of the presidential office

Gov't move triggers backlash from labor unions, opposition parties

By Nam Hyun-woo

President Yoon Suk-yeol signed an executive order on Tuesday to get unionized truckers to return to work, just days after he voiced concerns that their strike would cause serious damage to the nation's logistics, construction and other industries.

The decision, which came into effect immediately, drew a backlash from labor unions and opposition parties which claim that the ongoing negotiations between the government and the labor unions will be negatively affected.

"The Cargo Truckers Solidarity (CTS) has staged strikes since Nov. 24," Yoon said during a Cabinet meeting. "The transport of cement and steel has come to a halt, suspending construction and production across the country, and the country's industrial base will be devastated," he added.

"Members of the CTS, please return to your jobs before it gets too late," Yoon stressed. "During my presidency, I will strengthen the rule of law in labor-management relations and there will be no compromise with illegalities," he said.

Trucks are parked at a ready-mixed concrete firm in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, Tuesday, when unionized truckers were staging strikes for the sixth consecutive day. Yonhap
Trucks are parked at a ready-mixed concrete firm in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, Tuesday, when unionized truckers were staging strikes for the sixth consecutive day. Yonhap

The CTS, a sub-organization under the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers' Union (KPTU), estimates that up to 25,000 members have gone on strike since Nov. 24, demanding that the government guarantee a minimum freight rate.

The number of truckers taking part in the strike accounts for just 5 to 6 percent of the total number of lorry drivers. But most of the striking truckers drive large containers or bulk cement trailers and economic losses are inflicted mainly on the construction materials or steel industries.

The government estimates that the delivery of cement has declined by up to 95 percent after the strike began, causing supply chain disruptions at most construction sites across the country.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, on behalf of the government, and the CTS engaged in their first negotiations on Monday, but failed to narrow their differences. The second round of negotiations is slated for Wednesday, but the government decided to invoke the executive order to stop the strike.

The executive order took effect immediately after Yoon signed it. Therefore, the land ministry will send documents ordering more than 2,500 striking truckers to return to work.

Truckers and their agencies who receive these documents should resume their work a day after receiving the order.

"If they do not return to work without a convincing reason, they may see a suspension of their license, face up to three years in prison or fines of up to 30 million won ($22,600)," Deputy Prime Minister Choo Kyung-ho said during a press conference. "The government will sternly react to other illegal acts committed by the CTS based on laws and principles," he added.

Leaders of the Incheon chapter of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity have their hair shaved in protest against the government's decision to issue an executive order forcing them to return to work. Yonhap
Leaders of the Incheon chapter of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity have their hair shaved in protest against the government's decision to issue an executive order forcing them to return to work. Yonhap

The CTS reacted furiously to the executive order, calling it "martial law against cargo laborers."

"The order was introduced to limit and persecute the cargo workers' right to strike," it said in a statement. "Due to its anti-democratic nature and violence, it has never gone into effect since the law's enactment in 2004. Since it can strip the cargo transportation license of cargo workers, it is equivalent to martial law," it added.

The KPTU also said in a statement that "the order will be recorded as an unprecedented labor persecution and violation of the Constitution" and laws that prohibit forced labor.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) also demanded the government withdraw the "unconstitutional measure and return to negotiations with the CTS."

"The government's executive order does not contain any considerations on the low freight rate and poor labor conditions of the truckers," DPK spokesperson Rep. An Ho-young said.

"Due to its vague description and process, the executive order has never come into effect since its introduction in 2004. The condition required for the order is full of ambiguous expressions, such as 'justifiable grounds,' 'huge setbacks' and 'substantial reasons,' and it is highly vulnerable to exploitation based on discretionary interpretations."

To avoid possible legal disputes after the order, the government has to prove that the CTS strikes caused "serious" damage to the national economy and that its demand for a permanent guarantee of a minimum freight rate is not "a justifiable reason" for their action.

Due to these vague definitions, chances of legal actions and Constitutional appeals remain high regarding the executive order. In 2020, the government launched a similar executive order on 278 unionized medical workers who staged a strike, and faced a handful of lawsuits filed by them.

Along with the cargo truckers, unionized railway workers will also go on strike. The unionized workers of Seoul Metro, which operates many of the city's subway lines (1 to 8), also plan to walk out on Wednesday, and the Korea Railway Workers' Union will also begin striking on Dec. 2.

The government, however, plans to stand firm against the unions.

"It is very regrettable that the subway and railway workers are planning strikes," Yoon said during the Cabinet meeting. "Those unions are enjoying higher incomes and better labor conditions compared to other vulnerable laborers and most salaried workers. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions' (KCTU) strikes do not have justifiable reasons and we will sternly react based on laws and rules."

The KCTU is one of two major umbrella labor unions in Korea. The CTS, the railway workers' union and the KPTU are all under the KCTU.


Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr


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