Yoon’s tough talk adds to clash between striking truckers, S. Korean government

Posted on : 2022-11-29 16:41 KST Modified on : 2022-11-29 16:41 KST
The first round of negotiations between the two sides broke down as the administration emphasized a “stern response” over a willingness to engage in dialogue
President Yoon Suk-yeol gestures while presiding over a meeting of his senior secretaries at the Yongsan presidential office on Nov. 28. (courtesy of the presidential office)
President Yoon Suk-yeol gestures while presiding over a meeting of his senior secretaries at the Yongsan presidential office on Nov. 28. (courtesy of the presidential office)

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol put the screws to striking workers with the Cargo Truckers’ Solidarity Division (TruckSol) on Monday, stressing the need to “firmly establish the rule of law in terms of labor and management.”

Ahead of the first in-person negotiations scheduled that afternoon between TruckSol and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT), the presidential office was threatening to issue a “work start order” on Tuesday. The Central Disaster Safety and Countermeasures Headquarters (CDSCH), chaired by Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min, actively joined in on the push.

The first negotiations between the union and government ended up breaking down as the administration emphasized a “stern response” over a willingness to engage in dialogue.

According to information shared with reporters via text message by Kim Eun-hye, Yoon’s senior secretary for press affairs, the president received a report on the TruckSol strike during a meeting of senior secretaries at his presidential office at 10 am that day.

“When it comes to labor issues, it is important to firmly establish the laws and principles, whether it is the actions of labor or management that are illegal,” Yoon was quoted as saying in response.

Kim also said Yoon was “scheduled to preside personally over a Cabinet meeting tomorrow [Tuesday] to review a potential work start order.”

The text message was rushed out around 10:30 am while the senior secretaries’ meeting was in session. It arrived three hours and 30 minutes ahead of the first negotiations between the MOLIT and TruckSol at 2 pm that day.

During the meeting, Yoon stressed that it was the “consistent position of this administration with regard to labor issues” to “do away with the dual structure of the labor market and coordinate fairness in working conditions.”

“There is nothing to be gained through illegal actions,” he also said.

Lee Jae-myoung, the presidential office’s deputy spokesperson, said, “Given the situation where we can no longer sit idly by as the public suffers due to TruckSol’s collective transport walkout, we have an important matter to review with the work start order, and the president plans to personally preside over a Cabinet meeting tomorrow.”

The Trucking Transport Business Act empowers the Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport to order the “commencement of business operations” in cases of “great difficulty in transportation of cargo” resulting from a collective refusal by transport service providers or trucking employees “without good cause.”

Refusal to comply with the order without legitimate grounds is punishable by up to three years in prison or up to 30 million won in fines (US$22,520).

At the same time that Yoon was convening the meeting of senior secretaries, Lee Sang-min was presiding over a meeting of the CDSCH. This marks the first time the administration has put together a CDSCH in response to a strike rather than a natural disaster.

From the start of the meeting, Lee raised the possibility of issuing a work start order, as his remarks were reported in real time by the media.

After the meeting, he alluded to the possibility of sending in the authorities.

“If the national economy is predicted to suffer a highly severe crisis due to the collective transportation walkout, we plan to issue a commencement of business operations order and establish a police rapid response system to protect normal transportation operations,” he said.

In an emergency countermeasures meeting held at the National Assembly that morning, People Power Party (PPP) policy chief Sung Il-jong referred to the TruckSol strike as “inciting national destruction.”

“Only a firm response by the administration and public can stop TruckSol’s illegal action,” he stressed.

With Yoon, the administration, and the PPP all preemptively declaring their plans for a hardline response since the start of the day — including the possibility of a work start order — the first in-person negotiations between the MOLIT and TruckSol broke down an hour and 30 minutes after starting at 2 pm.

In a briefing after the talks’ collapse, Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Won Hee-ryong reaffirmed that he would “immediately execute a commencement of business operation order if it is approved by the Cabinet.” As a first step, the administration plans to impose a work start order for ready-mixed concrete transport vehicles.

The opposition criticized the hardline response from the administration and called for dialogue.

“What good does it do in resolving the situation for the labor side alone to be painted as a ‘belligerent group’?” Democratic Party floor leader Park Hong-keun asked reporters.

“The administration needs to state a position on why it has failed to keep its promise and what it plans to do going forward, and it needs to work to win labor’s support,” he urged.

During a meeting with the TruckSol leadership, Justice Party floor leader Lee Eun-ju sent a message to the administration.

“I once again urge them to immediately call off considering a work start order that would neutralize the transport workers’ three basic labor rights, and to pursue responsible dialogue,” she said.

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter; Sun Dam-eun, staff reporter; Shim Wu-sam, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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