Late on Tuesday, June 14, representatives of the South Korean Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport reached an agreement to end a nationwide truckers’ strike that had been transpiring since the previous Tuesday, June 7. In exchange for an extension of the truckers’ minimum wage system, the 7,050 striking truckers (according to a government estimate) agreed to end their strike, which lasted eight days in total. The government’s acceptance of the union’s demands comes shortly after a warning that the union might begin blocking shipments of coal to an unnamed power plant in Gunsan, which would have been a notable escalation of the truckers’ actions. By Monday, June 13, the strike had already cost key industrial sectors in South Korea over $1.2 billion in lost production and unfilled deliveries, so this deal is surely a relief for all parties involved.
“The Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union will immediately return to work, and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport will make utmost efforts so that truckers can return to work,” the union announced in their statement. These “utmost efforts,” according to the transport ministry’s statement, will involve working with parliament on extending the truckers’ minimum pay guarantee and reviewing expanding fuel subsidies “in order to ease truckers’ difficulties from [the] recent rise in oil prices.” The agreement comes at a time when both the union and the industrial community were standing on their last legs; looking back; it seems almost inevitable that this deal was made when it was. “If the strike continues next week, then we need to reassess our handling of shipments,” stated an anonymous official at a major South Korean electric vehicle battery maker, demonstrating the effect the strike had on major companies. Simultaneously, Kim Gyeong-dong, a trucker union official, told Reuters that the union had run out of funds to finance the strike on Thursday, June 9 and that it was unlikely they could last another ten days. Thankfully, the strike didn’t need to last much longer, and the truckers returned to work on June 15.
That same day, the interim leader of the liberal Democratic Party, Woo Sang-ho, while approving the deal, added that “the ruling party must not remain a mediator, but should promote directly” the minimum freight rate system as it is directly tied to the people’s safety. Striking unions across the world should view their actions likewise. While the victory of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union is undoubtedly worth celebrating, it’s important to recognize that this is just one more step towards complete economic justice. The ideal world is one in which a nationwide strike isn’t needed for the working class to achieve the bare minimum. However, much more effort will be needed to create a society in which workers’ lives are treated as more important than the companies they work for.
The union began striking in order to demand pay increases and an extension of the “safe rates” system, which was introduced during the pandemic to guarantee minimum freight rates and was previously due to expire in December. It remains unclear if the government will actually make the minimum pay system permanent or if they will only extend it beyond the December deadline. Legislation to extend the system was attempted in parliament last year when the administration was led by a liberal president. Those efforts failed due to a lack of compromise between the liberal and conservative parties. Now that the South Korean government is divided between a liberal-controlled parliament and a conservative presidency, one would expect it to be even more difficult to get the legislation passed. Only time will tell if the union’s actions will be enough to break the deadlock.
Despite the future remaining unclear, the success of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union is a victory for workers throughout South Korea and the rest of the world. Severely impacting several industries and then bringing a conservative administration to the negotiating table shows the power of solidarity among the working class. The truckers’ story has proven that collective action is an effective method for bringing about change, and hopefully, that provides inspiration to all workers being oppressed by cruel economic systems.