(ATTN: UPDATES with more info; ADDS photos)
By Park Boram
SEOUL/GUNSAN, South Korea, Dec. 9 (Yonhap) -- Striking cargo truckers voted Friday to end their weekslong walkout after their collective action incurred massive supply disruptions across industries and prompted the government to issue back-to-work orders.
In a plenary vote conducted in the morning, nearly 62 percent voted in favor of ending the strike while about 38 percent objected, according to the results of the vote released by the North Jeolla branch of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union.
The vote was participated by 3,574 of the union's total 26,144 members.
The union launched the vote earlier in the day in 16 locations nationwide, a day after the executive committee of the union held an emergency meeting to decide whether to continue the strike but failed to reach an agreement.
Protest tents and propaganda banners set up at major striking sites nationwide, including terminals in the western port city of Incheon and a post office in Daejeon, were pulled down after the vote results were released as truckers prepared to returned to work.
Since Nov. 24, thousands of cargo truck drivers have staged the strike, demanding the government extend the Safe Trucking Freight Rates System guaranteeing minimum wages and ultimately make it permanent.
On Friday, the main opposition Democratic Party unilaterally passed a bill to extend the system for another three years beyond its scheduled expiration at the end of the year through the parliamentary transportation committee.
The ruling People Power Party (PPP) did not take part in the vote, claiming the issue should be further discussed after the drivers return to work.
The government and the PPP had initially agreed to extend the system.
The strike has wrought massive supply disruptions across industries, with damage in steel firms and the petrochemical sector reaching 1.3 trillion won (US$987.7 million), respectively.
The government on Thursday issued an order for striking truckers serving in the petrochemical and steel industries to return to work, the second such order following the first issued on the cement industry last week.
The union's regional branch in the southern port city of Busan, meanwhile, unilaterally decided to end its strike without a vote earlier in the day and told its members to return to work, protesting the vote constitutes an act of "passing the buck" to union members.
About 500 workers who gathered at a port in Busan soon dispersed without a major conflict to return to work.
The government's return-to-work orders had triggered a split among strikers, with some drivers breaking ranks and going back behind the wheel.
"I have been heart-broken to see union members splitting with each other following back-to-work orders," Lee Bong-joo, the leader of the truckers' union, said Thursday. "We decided to launch a vote to stop members from sustaining further damage."
Under the law, anyone defying the order can be punished with up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 30 million won (US$23,057). Until last week, South Korea had no record of issuing such an order since the relevant law was enacted in 2004.
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