Trade unions are going on the offensive, fanning concerns over a dismal outlook for the Korean economy and its weakening growth momentum.
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions announced on Tuesday that it will go on a general strike.
Its demands to the government and the National Assembly are wide. They include the legislation of a special law on construction safety to root out fatal accidents on construction sites, the perpetuation and expansion of the "safe truck freight rates" system, the suspension of the privatization of education and medical sectors, and the amendment of the trade union law.
A string of strikes is planned. Unions of heavy-duty truck drivers will begin to strike on Nov. 24, followed by irregular school employees on Nov. 25, Seoul Metro employees on Nov. 30 and railway workers on Dec. 2.
Their announced back-to-back strikes heighten worry of the general public because economic crisis alarms have sounded incessantly at home and abroad.
In a survey by the Korea Development Institute, 97 percent of economists and 96 percent of members of the general public said the national economy is in crisis.
The Korean economy shows clear signs of bogging down. Exports, its main growth engine, began to slide noticeably last month. International oil and raw material prices are still high. Trade deficit is likely to hit eight straight months in November. Accumulated trade deficit this year is approaching a record high of $40 billion. Export is expected to increase within a 1 percent range next year. Growth rates have been revised down several times. The KDI forecasts a 1.8 percent growth for next year, a low Korea has not seen except for a few periods of crisis.
The livelihood of the working class is hard-pressed by high inflation. According to Statistics Korea, households in the bottom 20 percent income bracket saw their inflation-adjusted real income shrink 6.5 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier.
And yet labor unions are poised to strike as planned regardless of economic conditions. Particularly, a strike by the Cargo Truckers Solidarity is concerning. If truck drivers refuse to transport cargoes, tremendous damage to industrial production and exports will be inevitable. Their eight-day strike in June caused an estimated damage of 1.6 trillion won ($1.1 billion) to industries.
To make matters worse, not only the truckers but also subway and railway workers and irregular school employees are scheduled to strike. Their strikes will give a hard time to the general public as well as industries.
The solidarity's demand this time is the same as in June. It wants the safe freight rates system to be perpetuated and cover more transport goods.
The system was introduced in 2020 to guarantee minimum hourly freight rates for cement and container truck drivers. Shippers will be fined if they pay less than rates set by the system. It will end at the end of this year because it has a three-year sunset deadline.
The government and the ruling People Power Party on Tuesday decided to extend the deadline of the system by three years but keep restricting transport items to ready-mixed cement and containers. Despite the government policy to prolong the deadline, the solidarity has not withdrawn its intention to strike.
The confederation's demand for the amendment of the trade union law is hard to accept from the position of employers because the revision bill effectively bans companies' right to sue striking workers and unions for compensation for damage due to their strikes. If amended, the union law will likely foster illegal strikes. The main opposition and majority Democratic Party of Korea must stop pushing for the amendment which will exempt strikers from responsibility for the economic loss they cause.
A strike is a legitimate labor right, but it is a bad time to do so. Now is the time to share pains and join forces to stride over economic crisis. Collective selfishness will only add to the burden on the national economy. The labor circle should scrap its strike plans and try to help revive the economy.