South Korean truckers continue to protest for months for better conditions

Months into the dispute, truckers from South Korean beer and liquor company HiteJinro and its wholly-owned subsidiary Suyang Logistics continue to protest unfair terms and dismissals. The ongoing protests are the result of management’s refusal to respond to workers’ demands and betrayal by the unions, which seek to subordinate the struggle to South Korea’s main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Korea (DP).

Currently, 132 company drivers are asking to be reinstated after being fired in June. Their dismissals followed protests and then strikes against HiteJinro that began in March when the drivers, officially employed at Suyang Logistics, joined Cargo Truckers Solidarity (CTS) in hopes of improving working conditions at the company. CTS is a branch of the Korea Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union, which is affiliated to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU).

Drivers are asking for an increase in shipping costs of at least 30% to meet the rising cost of goods. In July, consumer prices rose 6.3%, the highest in nearly 24 years. Meanwhile, shipping costs have stagnated since 2008. Workers reportedly earn between 700,000 won ($506) and one million won ($722) a month when all of their expenses are subtracted.

HiteJinro drivers are also not covered by the Safe Trucking Freight Rates System, which guarantees a minimum freight rate to ensure that drivers don’t have to drive dangerously to make ends meet. This system, already insufficient for the needs of drivers, only covers shipping containers and cement.

In addition, the drivers are asking for the withdrawal of HiteJinro’s claims for damages against some of the union members resulting from the strikes and protests, as well as a request for a court injunction against workers’ protest sites outside the company factories in Icheon, Gyeonggi Province. , Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, and Hongcheon, Gangwon Province. The company is seeking up to 2.8 billion won in damages resulting from the protests.

The CTS and KCTU are using these protests to try to convince workers that their struggles can be fought through pro-capitalist democrats and the various civic and religious organizations that revolve around the DP. In fact, the Democrats and their allies like the fake-left Justice Party share the same anti-worker agenda as President Yoon Suk-yeol’s right-wing administration and the ruling People’s Power Party.

On September 5, the KCTU helped organize a press conference with the Korea Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and Advocates for a Democratic Society. These organizations, linked to the Democrats, took to the stage outside the HiteJinro headquarters in Seoul to portray themselves as the drivers’ advocates and provide political cover for the KCTU and its ongoing measures to prevent them from reaching out to d other sections of the working class.

On August 25, union bureaucrats from the CTS, including its leader Lee Bong-ju, also met with six DP politicians outside the offices of HiteJinro to help reinforce the false and long-discredited image of the Democrats as friends of the working class. In reality, the union wants Democrats to help end this fight and force a sellout deal in favor of the company.

The KCTU also cited the Justice Party favorably in an August 26 article on its news platform, Nodonggwa Segye (work and the world), the party declaring that HiteJinro’s actions were “unjust and illegal labor oppression that nullifies the constitutionally guaranteed right to strike and even ignores the [International Labor Organization] conventions.” In other words, according to the Justice Party and the KCTU, if only the company obeyed the law, the workers would not have a dispute with their employers.

The drivers’ protests, which began in March, turned into partial strikes in May, then an all-out strike on June 2 in Icheon and Cheongju. Picket lines extended to the company’s factory in Hongcheon on August 2. HiteJinro refuses to respond to the drivers’ demands, saying they should negotiate with Suyang Logistics, despite the latter being a wholly-owned subsidiary.

A HiteJinro official told the media earlier this month, “The union did not make any new proposals, but only rejected Suyang Logistics’ proposals. There does not seem to be any will to negotiate. However, the union has already ended a protest sit-in at HiteJinro headquarters in an attempt to bring the company to the bargaining table.

At the same time, the company used scabs, backed by police, from its offices to drive delivery trucks. The KCTU and CTS, however, have tacitly accepted the company’s strikebreaking operations by refusing to organize larger strikes by other drivers, or among its wider membership, which the KCTU says exceeds 1 ,1 million. Even as other unions go on strike or threaten to pull out, the KCTU consciously keeps these struggles isolated from each other.

Additionally, in June, CTS truckers across the country launched a week-long strike against similar conditions. This strike began to impact major companies like steel producer POSCO and Hyundai Motors, at which point CTS quickly ended the industrial action with none of the demands being met. The struggle of HiteJinro drivers continued, however, cut off from other workers, even within their own union.

This is the modus operandi of the KCTU and its affiliates. While posing as “militant” worker advocates, the union maneuvers behind the scenes to reach an agreement that it applies to its members. At the same time, strikes are limited as much as possible to protect South Korean businesses and the profit system. When strikes break out, like the one currently affecting freight drivers, they are isolated from other sections of the working class.

In order to advance their struggle, the protesting drivers in HiteJinro must break with the KCTU and all capitalist parties and organizations through the establishment of independent grassroots committees.

These committees must reach out to all sections of the working class in South Korea and around the world, who all face the same conditions of exploitation, in order to expand their struggle. The goal must be to develop an independent movement of the working class against the capitalist system itself.

About Julie Gray

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