By Choonsik Yoo and Heekyong Yang
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s unionized truckers have struck a solid deal with their largely peaceful strike action that has proven effective without upsetting a largely anti-union public after years of militant action.
But the group of aging drivers is often seen as an exception in the country’s combative and politicized industrial landscape and their success may not be a harbinger of broader peace in the labor market, according to the experts.
Cargo Truckers Solidarity is not a recognized union, a reason the government initially gave for its reluctance to sit down to negotiate demands for minimum freight rates and subsidies to offset soaring fuel prices.
Yet in just eight days of walking, truckers managed to reach major industrial centers and seaports, crippling the movement of finished cars, steel and petrochemicals.
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As the strike cost Asia’s fourth-largest economy more than $1.2 billion in lost production and missed deliveries, truckers avoided blocking roads or staging violent rallies that could have angered a public weary of the demands of trade unionists better paid than their non-union counterparts and small business owners.
“Workers have learned that physical conflict is not the solution, and so a softer strike is becoming common practice,” said Kim Dong-won, a management professor at Korea University. “The union must also look at public opinion.”
Lee Byoung-Hoon, a Chung-Ang University professor specializing in labor and labor relations, said truckers had learned to be efficient from previous strikes.
“They learned that the opportunity cost of strikes could be colossal, leading to the arrest of union leaders and the financial damages that union members must suffer.”
Thousands of truckers hit the roads on Wednesday after the union and government reached a late-night deal to end an eight-day strike.
This contrasted sharply with the country’s history of often violent social conflict, characterized by street clashes between police in heavy riot gear and militant trade unionists blockading industrial sites.
No independent opinion polls have been published on the strike which began on June 7 over demands such as the extension of a minimum fare system, but local media have been largely neutral on the conflict.
As diesel prices have risen 40% since the start of the year to a record high, truckers’ demands for higher wages appeared to be met with more public sympathy than they might have had in the past.
The peaceful resolution means South Korea’s new conservative president escaped his first major economic challenge largely unscathed.
“As a former Attorney General, President Yoon Suk-yeol has emphasized the rule of law, and by doing so he sends the message that he will not suppress strikes as long as they do not violate the law,” said Lim Tae-jun, a police science professor at Dongguk University.
The Freight Truckers’ Solidarity also managed to avoid public criticism for its political character, as its powerful umbrella group, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, stayed out of the conflict.
But experts say this does not signal a fundamental shift from the politicized and still militant elements of South Korea’s industrial scene.
Several costly reform plans have been proposed by Yoon, including reform of the national pension system, employment regulations and other business-friendly programs.
“With unresolved labor issues and the government’s rather tough stance on unions, disputes between unions and the Yoon administration would likely escalate, or worsen over time, because now that unions have a ‘proper’ environment for strikes and protests,” the union said. said Park Ji-soon, a legal scholar at Korea University School of Law.
Unions are likely bracing for a fight given Yoon’s agenda, said Yoon Tae-gon, a political analyst at the head of consultancy firm The Moa. “And it will be all the more so as we live in a period of economic difficulties.”
(Reporting by Choonsik Yoo; Additional reporting by Ju-min Park, Byungwook Kim, Heekyong Yang; Editing by Jack Kim and Lincoln Feast.)
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