Clive Tillman reports from South Korea on a seminal truckers protest
The Korean Cargo Transport Workers Union called an indefinite strike starting On Monday 25 June 2012. The strike lasted five days with the workers returning to work on the evening of Friday 29June.
On June 25 there were rallies across the country to begin the strike, two union members occupied cargo terminal observation towers to stage high altitude protests.
Although the government attempted to downplay the numbers on strike, there was a considerable turnout with over 3,600 union members and 6,000 non-union members participating in the strike. Of the 10,200 containers trailers in the country 80 per cent participated. The major ports were targeted and in the main port of Busan less than half the daily average number of containers were transported.
The original demands of the strike were for the government to reduce the price of diesel, increase transport rates, guarantee union rights, and to give truck drives access to industrial accident insurance. In 2008 truck drivers staged a nationwide strike that cost industry over 5 billion US dollars. After the strike the government agreed to a standard freight system that would guarantee drivers a living income. However the government did not keep its promise and refused to negotiate with the union.
The strike ended on 29 June with the truckers winning a 9.9 per cent increase in cargo fees, this was agreed between the unions the cargo distribution operators. The government still refused to enter into negotiations over cargo fees, however the government said that it would also consider reviewing the price of diesel.
The participation of such large numbers of non union members shows that there is a high level of discontent among workers in this industry and that more work must be done in order to get these workers organised. Part of the barrier to building strong trucker unions and industry wide collective bargaining is that in Korea truck drivers are classified as “independent contractors”. This sham contracting arrangement is upheld by the Korean government because it serves the purpose of limiting the legality of union involvement in negotiations for collective agreements and denies them the legal right to unionise under Korean labour law. Because of their classification as “independent businesses” collective bargaining conflicts with trade practices legislation.
The end result is super exploitation and a denial of even the most basic labour rights. This explains the high number of non-union workers on strike. Even though there is a lot of discontent among truck drivers, their “independent contractor” status makes it difficult for them to be organised.
Even though truck drivers are formally classified as “independent contractors” under law, in practice they are really employees because their labour is under the control of the trucking and transportation companies through the commercial licensing system. Under the licensing system the driver's commercial license is owned by trucking companies , these companies take a cut of the driver's earnings, in turn these companies are sub-contracted with a string of larger companies. Ultimately this entire group of sub-contracted companies all take their share of the driver's labour product and control the nature of the work to be performed. Truck drivers are at the bottom of the subcontracting system and their livelihood is dictated by the transport companies, their subcontractors and the large Korean oil retailers that monopolise the sale of diesel. They form part of the global proletarian class that has no control over the means of production and is forced to work or starve.
What is worth highlighting is the absolute fear that the strike generated. The strike placed absolute fear in the hearts of conservative commentators, capitalists and the government. As the conservative newspaper Dong a-ilbo states “paralysing shipments in a trade dependent country like Korea is like blocking a person's arteries”. The strike generated such fear that the military was called upon to supply over 100 trucks to transport goods.
The fear this strike generated in the ruling class shows that workers united in key industries have enormous social power. As the truckers union proclaimed in a press conference prior to the strike: “the flow of goods and constructionsites in the Republic of Korea will come to a standstill”. Under capitalism certain industries are more vital than others for the smooth functioning of the system, a slowdown in the transport of goods can bring the capitalist system to a grinding halt. If workers can control the flow of goods it puts them in a position to demand concessions from the system and stand up against exploitation. Workers have enormous power to change the world!