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Japan’s Unions Form National Labor Federation

November 20, 1987

TOKYO (AP) _ Japanese unions formed a national labor front Friday, hoping to reverse decades of declining membership and launch a renewed campaign to shorten the 48-hour week and improve working conditions.

The Japanese Private Sector Trade Union Confederation will represent 5.6 million workers initially. It includes 62 unions from four federations.

Union membership has fallen steadily since the late 1940s, when more than 50 percent of the labor force was organized. Last year, 28 percent of the 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 ″labor and management enjoy a good working relationship″ because of growing affluence and job security.

Toshifumi Tateyama was elected president of the new organization, which is called Rengo. He said it will ″strive to enhance the living conditions of the people″ by pressing for a shorter week and tax reductions.

Unlike in other countries, where one union organizes an entire industry, Japanese unions are organized within individual companies before joining an industry union and one of the federations.

Under the new arrangement, two of the four federations disbanded and a third is expected to do so soon, making the new organization by far the largest grouping of private-sector unions.

The fourth federation, Japan’s largest, is the 4.4-million-member General Council of Trade Unions of Japan. Its private-sector unions have joined the new group and its largest ones, from the public sector, plan to do so in 1990.

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

Workers at Nissan, the world’s fourth largest auto company, have not struck since 1953.

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

Even the largest companies virtually guarantee lifetime employment and show family-style concern for their workers.

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

A deal often is made ahead of time. Unions let the company know when the strike will start and how many hours it will last in order 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 man days to labor disputes in 1985 while the United States and Britain lost nearly 6 million each.

Japanese employers gave wage increases averaging 3.51 percent after this year’s spring labor offensive, at a time of zero inflation. Average raises in 1972 were 32.9 percent, double that year’s inflation rate.