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Japan’s Labor Federations to Merge as United Front

November 19, 1987

TOKYO (AP) _ Japan’s labor unions, reeling from decades of declining membership, are hoping a nationwide confederation being formed Friday will boost efforts to shorten the 48-hour work week and improve working conditions.

In an attempt to boost the clout of a movement hurt by the apathy of an increasingly affluent and white-collar worker pool, 62 unions from four federations are merging into a single united front.

The Japanese Private Sector Trade Union Confederation, Rengo in Japanese, will at the outset represent 5.6 million workers.

Japan’s unionization rate has fallen steadily since the late 1940s, when more than 50 percent of the labor force was organized. Last year, a record low 28 percent of the nation’s 43.8 million working people were union members, according to the Ministry of Labor.

″White-collar workers and the younger generation don’t feel any attraction to the unions,″ said Masakazu Tsukamoto, a ministry assistant director.

″Before the war, people joined the unions to protect their jobs,″ he said. But now, because of growing affluence and job security in Japan, ″labor and management enjoy a good working relationship.″

Unlike in other countries, where unions are industry-wide, unions are organized from within companies in Japan and then join industry-wide unions as well as one of the four umbrella federations.

In the new confederation, two of the four federations will disband and a third is expected to do so soon, making the new body by far the largest grouping of private-sector unions.

The fourth and largest federation is the 4.4 million-member General Council of Trade Unions of Japan (Sohyo). Its private-sector unions are joining Rengo now and its largest unions, from the public sector, will do so in 1990.

Labor unions have been bickering among themselves for decades while labor- management relations are ″exceptionally healthy,″ said James C. Abegglen, president of the Asia Advisory Service Inc. consulting firm in Tokyo.

Workers at Nissan Motor, the world’s fourth largest auto firm, for example, have not staged a strike since 1953.

″The workers want to do what is best for the company,″ said Tsukamoto, reflecting a traditional Japanese loyalty to the employer.

Even the country’s largest firms virtually guarantee lifetime employment and show near family-style concern for their workers.

Strikes have become largely a formality across the country and shunto, the traditional spring labor offensive when workers don headbands and strike for higher pay, rarely costs companies more than a few work hours.

Often, a deal is struck before workers carry out strike threats. Unions let the company know in advance of the planned start of the strike - and how many hours it will last - to avoid major disruptions.

″It’s a ritual, it’s a rite,″ said Abegglen, who has written several books on labor relations.

According to the Labor Ministry, Japan lost 257,000 manpower days to labor disputes in 1985, while the United States and England each lost nearly six million manpower days to strikes that year.

Japanese employers gave wage increases averaging 3.51 percent after the this year’s spring labor offensive - during a time of zero inflation. In 1972, average raises were 32.9 percent - double that year’s inflation rate.

Unlike past struggles focusing solely on higher pay, the new labor confederation will campaign for better working conditions, including increased welfare benefits and shorter working hours, organizers say.

″Japanese salarymen have the highest income level in the world, but their daily lives don’t reflect any of the merits of such high pay,″ said Yoshio Sugai, assistant general secretary of the Japan Private Sector Trade Union Council, which is helping form Rengo.

″The new movement will seek to establish a higher standard of living as in Europe and the United States,″ Sugai said, adding that ″shorter working hours and better working environments will be major prerequisites.″

The work week is 48 hours. The government is considering cutting it to 46 hours, and eventually to 40 hours.

The uniting of the labor movements could have political repercussions. The four existing federations are divided between support for the larger Japan Socialist Party and the smaller, more conservative Democratic Socialist Party.

The two parties split in the 1950s and have since failed to mount a serious challenge to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Sugai said Rengo will not give ″official support to any of the four leading opposition parties,″ but ″will maintain close ties through regular meetings.″

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