South Korea scrambles to avert trucker strike, fearing economic damage

SEOUL — South Korea’s government and ruling-party officials scrambled on Tuesday to stave off a strike by unionized truckers who hobbled the country’s industrial hubs and ports only five months ago.

Members of the administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol urgently met officials of his People Power Party to look for a solution as major trucking unions threatened to begin a nationwide strike on Thursday over pay and surging fuel prices.

In June, an eight-day strike by truckers delayed cargo shipments for industries from autos to semiconductors in Asia’s fourth-largest economy, costing more than $1.2 billion in lost output and unmet deliveries while posing new risks to a strained global supply chain.

Such major companies as Hyundai Motor and steelmaker POSCO were forced to cut output.

Another round of disruption of supplies, production and exports could fuel fears of worsening inflation and damage to the country’s post-pandemic recovery.

The truckers, largely self-employed, want an extension of subsidies to guarantee minimum earnings which the government gave them during the pandemic but which will expire in December.

In a tentative deal to end the June strike, officials promised to address the demand. But legislation introduced last year to extend the subsidies has been held up in parliament as some stakeholders have objected.

The government and ruling party agreed on Tuesday to extend the system by three years but refused to accept the unions’ further request to expand it to cover truckers in better-paying areas, such as carrying fuel and steel.

“If the union members go on a shocking strike, they will inflict substantial damage on the national economy at this bad time with soaring prices and interest rates,” the party’s policy chief, Sung Il-jong, told a briefing.

Yoon is already struggling with economic troubles and low approval ratings.

Labor minister Lee Jung-sik pleaded on Monday for a compromise, urging the truckers not to strike.

The Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union, which is steering the strike, said the government had failed to keep its June promise. The union vowed to go ahead with the strike.

“Life or death, we are going on strike this time with rage,” Lee Bong-ju, the union chief, told reporters. — Reuters