The Yoon Suk-yeol administration's back-to-work order to drivers of bulk cement trailers carries significant meaning beyond its response to their strike.
The order given for the first time ever on Wednesday was inevitable. Shipment of cement is said to have shrunken to a level of about 10 percent than usual. Works on more than half of construction sites across the country hit a snag.
Past governments were swayed by militant labor unions, particularly those affiliated with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. Striking owners of bulk cement trailers belong to Cargo Truckers Solidarity, a member group of the confederation.
Its member unions made excessive demands and won them through strong and sometimes violent struggles.
The national economy and the livelihoods of people were taken hostage. Law enforcement was powerless. All the more so under the previous Moon Jae-in administration. The hard-line labor movement was often blamed for eroding the nation's industrial competitiveness.
The back-to-work order is the first step to correct the harmful labor practices and establish the rule of law in the field of labor relations.
One thing that is important in responding to strikes that are difficult to justify is the government's indomitable will to enforce the law. Yoon vowed never to compromise over illegal labor behavior. He must show what he means by his actions, not his words.
The government must guarantee legitimate labor rights to strike but respond sternly to illegitimate behavior that causes tremendous harm to the economy and deprives non-unionized low-income workers of opportunity to work. If the government does not resolve labor strife in accordance with the law and principles but compromises on the fly, unjustifiable strikes and illegal behavior will happen over and over again.
The solidarity rejected the order flatly. The back-to-work order takes effect after the order is physically delivered to workers. The delivery of the order is expected to take a significant amount of time, but related agencies must cooperate and do their best. They must deal sternly with any act made to obstruct the delivery. If workers refuse to return to work after receiving the order, their licenses may be suspended or canceled.
The confederation is suspected of pulling the strings from behind the Seoul Metro strike. Shortly before the union of Seoul Transportation Corp., which operates Seoul Metro subway lines, completed a draft agreement with the corporation, the leader of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union, under which the smaller Seoul Transportation union falls, visited the corporation. Hours later, the Seoul Transportation union declared negotiations broke down, and went on a strike. Fortunately, just a day after starting a strike, the Seoul Transportation union renegotiated and struck a deal with the corporation.
This situation exposes the confederation's political intent to shake the government by striking a blow to the economy. Strikes under the cloak of demands for a wage hike or better working conditions but really intended to attain certain political goals must not be tolerated.
The confederation, which is the nation's largest trade group, began to flex its muscles: The Korean Construction Workers’ Union went on a strike on Nov. 22, the union of Seoul National University Hospital on Nov. 23, Cargo Truckers Solidarity on Nov. 24 and the union of non-regular school workers on Nov. 25. The Korean Railway Workers' Union are expected to go on strike Friday. The labor unions may strike and they have different issues, some of which may not be serious enough to justify a strike.
The confederation plans to hold rallies of its member unionists in Seoul and Busan on Saturday and stage a general strike on Dec. 6. This is its response to the government's back-to-work order.
If the government gives way again this time, not only the trailer drivers of the solidarity but also the confederation and many other member unions will demand more the next time, regardless of economic conditions.
Labor reform is one of three major reforms the Yoon administration vowed to accomplish along with pension and education reforms. Resistance from vested interests is unavoidable. If it fails to establish the rule of law in labor affairs, the two other reforms will likely come to naught.