Japanese labor unions used to be a force to be reckoned with, but declining membership, fading activism, and the rise of irregular employment have led many ordinary Japanese to forget that they even exist
MICHAEL PENN, JOURNALIST, TRNN: This is Michael Penn with The Real News in Tokyo.
At its peak in 1949, more than 55 percent of Japanese workers were unionized. But soon, times changed. Both the U.S. government and Japan’s conservative postwar leaders worked to roll back the power of workers and labor unions through a variety of means, and they have been broadly successful.
HIROSHI KIMURA, ASSISTANT SECRETARY-GENERAL, RENGO (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The Labor Ministry carries out surveys on labor unions, and in last year’s survey they found that the rate of workers participating in labor unions was 17.9 percent. This was an even lower figure even than had been the case the year before that.
PENN: The Japanese Trade Union Confederation, called Rengo for short, is by far the largest national trade union center. It represents well over 6 million Japanese workers even now, and its leader, Nobuaki Koga, is the best-known face of the labor union movement, whose support is sought after by many aspiring and established Japanese politicians.
But even Rengo is struggling to keep up with changes in the Japanese economy.
KIMURA: In large factories, it is very easy for people to organize themselves into labor unions. But in the service sector, you are often dealing with small shops, and that is a much more difficult prospect for labor union organizers.
PENN: But even with the major difficulties, there are millions of organized workers whose unions do not come under Rengo’s umbrella.
KIMURA: To put the matter simply, it is the confrontation of different ideologies.
PENN: The National Confederation of Trade Unions, called Zenroren, is the second-largest national trade union center, representing more than 700,000 organized workers, and noted for being far more activist in its approach as compared to the more staid and conservative Rengo.
YOSHIKAZU ODAGAWA, SECRETARY-GENERAL, ZENROREN (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The biggest point of difference between Rengo and our Zenroren regards whether to have separate labor unions within each company, or whether to go beyond their bounds and to increase our influence by building regional and cross-industry labor union links.
PENN: Indeed, one of the unusual features of Japanese trade unions is that they tend to be organized separately within individual Japanese companies rather than horizontally across an entire industry. Many companies create their own unique company unions, perhaps as a way to inoculate themselves against the formation of more independent union activities.
Zenroren opposes these company-specific labor unions and is often in confrontation with Rengo on these matters.
Although formally independent of any political party, Zenroren cooperates with the Japan Communist Party and, like them, remains one of the strongest advocates of the traditional pacifist views of early postwar Japan.
ODAGAWA: Labor unions can only exist in times of peace and cannot prosper under wartime conditions. I think that this fact about the people’s right to organize is suggested by Japan’s history.
PENN: Rengo also has a political alliance, and that is with the Democratic Party of Japan, which was, until December, the nation’s ruling party. Rengo’s influence can often be perceived at the highest levels of the party.
BANRI KAIEDA, PRESIDENT, DEMOCRATIC PARTY OF JAPAN (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Our fundamental position is to adopt the perspectives of workers and consumers. This means that we listen carefully to the voices of labor unions, workers, and consumers. We aim to have a cooperative relationship with them, and we will continue to do so.
PENN: But even the three-year regime of the basically pro-labor Democratic Party of Japan did little to address the biggest challenge for Japanese labor unions, and that is the steady shift from regular lifetime employment to various forms of irregular work.
ODAGAWA: Irregular work is becoming pervasiveâ€”part-time workers, contract workers, dispatched workers. As a result, we are seeing the appearance of the so-called “working poor” phenomenon.
PENN: Union leaders are still trying to figure out effective means to respond.
ODAGAWA: Zenroren is now compiling our action plan, and we are putting top priority on irregular workers.
PENN: Although they don’t work together with Zenroren, Rengo also cites the issue of irregular workers as a major social problem.
KIMURA: We receive criticism that we act basically only for regular employees and public officials. But in this period of the Spring Offensive, the condition of irregular workers is a major pillar.
PENN: Within Japanese society, it is the working conditions of women that are among the least rewarding.
HIROHIKO TAKASU, PROJECT DIRECTOR, HITOTSUBASHI UNIVERSITY (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Women entered the workforce in the 1980s, and even now more than half are irregular workers.
PENN: Some Japanese female union activists have fought hard to change the most egregious and discriminatory policies, as this former union leader from Japan Airlines explained.
TAEKO UCHIDA, FMR. JAPAN AIRLINES CABIN ATTENDANT (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I entered the company in 1974, and at that time women were required to get married and retire. Our Cabin Crew Union demanded the age limit for working women be raised from 30 to 60. We said women should be treated the same as men, even if we had children. Through our tenacious negotiations and our solidarity we were able to achieve our goal.
PENN: But Ms. Uchida was the head of one of those more independent and activist Zenroren-affiliated unions. And when Japan Airlines filed for bankruptcy in early 2010, she was among the first to be laid off. And although the company has now recovered financially, JAL executives are hiring young new female employees rather than those like Ms. Uchida who had served them for many years.
UCHIDA: There is another union inside Japan Airlines that was set up by the company itself. We faced a continuous process of discrimination against our union. I myself and other members were singled out, and I believe we were targeted for dismissal.
PENN: Most union leaders appear to feel that the Japanese national media tends to prioritize the views of business and the national business federation over the views of workers and the labor movement.
ODAGAWA: The main source of income for both newspapers and television is advertisements. It’s easy to understand if you think about who buys those expensive advertisement spaces. This is the basic framework through which even the big newspapers exist.
PENN: Among the older generations of Japanese society in particular, there are some who cultivate a deeply negative view of labor unions. Professor Takasu notes some of the images that prevail in these quarters.
TAKASU: Radical, scary groups, opposition to company presidents, resistance organizations.
PENN: But according to Professor Takasu’s research, the main image of the labor movement in Japanese society today is no image at all. Younger people simply don’t know what a labor union is, and they don’t see in them any relevance to their own lives.
TAKASU: Until the 1970s, there were major strikes, even with these trains over here. This was part ef the Spring Offensive and was a natural part of negotiations to raise wages. Since the 1980s, these strikes have disappeared, and so has public awareness of labor unions.
PENN: The Liberal Democratic Party, which has just returned to power after a three-year absence, is strongly tied to big business. Rengo says that it wants to reach out to the new Shinzo Abe administration, but the prospects for government policies that prioritize the interests of Japanese workers seem dim.
KIMURA: If you ask what happens from now, it is an extremely worrisome situation. The new government’s policy platform just talks about personal responsibility and self-help. They just say, help yourselvesâ€”and of course people must make their own efforts. But some people really do need help from others, and we must seriously think how to assist them.
PENN: The leaders of labor unions fear where the current trends are leading the Japanese nation.
KIMURA: If labor unions are not healthy, then society itself becomes unhealthy.
PENN: So economic globalization, increased labor mobility, and conservative dominance of politics and the media mean that the position of workers is erodingâ€”even in a Japan famous for its lifetime employment practices.
This is Michael Penn for the Real News in Tokyo.