Berlitz strike grows despite naysayers

Historic six-month action is starting to reap dividends

Despite scabs, naysayers and second-guessing pundits in the English-language media, Berlitz teachers are making history. With more than 100 teachers striking at dozens of schools around the Kanto region for over six months, the industrial action at Berlitz is now the largest sustained strike in Japan’s language school history.

Begunto demands a 4.6 percent base pay hike and a one-off bonus of one month’s salary. Berlitz Japan has not raised teachers’ base pay for 16 years. Three years ago, the language school lowered starting pay by over 10 percent per lesson, a cut only partially mitigated by a performance-based raise this year.

These demands are carried over from last year and are the two key demands of Begunto’s 2008 “shunto.”

Shunto is the traditional labor offensive that unions around the country wage each spring. It literally means “spring battle.” In Japan, even labor disputes invoke seasonal change.

Although management’s two proposals have thus far fallen short of Begunto’s demands, members are showing extraordinary energy and commitment to building momentum in the strike until the demands are met. Two language centers that have had particularly effective walkouts are the powerful Akasaka and Ikebukuro “shops.” More than half of all Berlitz schools in Kanto have participated in the strike.

In order to realize the strike demands, the union has organized and coordinated sophisticated surgical strikes, including bait-and-switch and strike feints. This keeps bosses on their toes.

Due to logistic issues, Begunto often can give written notice to the company only several minutes before the start of a particular strike. So management has had to scramble to cover lessons. They sometimes send and pay replacement teachers to cover lessons that end up not being struck, so nonstrikes can be as costly to the company as strikes. On other occasions, management sets up a team of replacement teachers at a nearby cafe, ready to rush over at a moment’s notice in case a strike occurs. The union calls these scabs-in-waiting “caffeine cowboys.” The company also assigns teachers to special “scab-watch” periods, meaning they get paid to wait in case a strike might happen.

Berlitz apparently prefers to spend a great deal of money and energy breaking the strike rather than resolving it by meeting the union’s reasonable demands. Their reasonableness becomes evident in light of Japan’s rising consumer price index (up 2.1 percent year-on-year in August), the slashing of starting pay in 2005 and the 16-year pay hike drought.

In addition to striking nearly every day, Begunto has held demonstrations at various schools around the Kanto Plain nearly every week and has toured Tokyo several times in a sound truck, announcing over a loud speaker, to make sure that the public knows why Berlitz teachers are fighting.

Begunto recently posted on the bulletin board of many Berlitz schools a document entitled “Definition of a Scab,” which caused some controversy. The definition actually belongs to author Jack London and includes such colorful hyperbole as:

“After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, the vampire, He had some awful substance left with which He made a scab.

“A scab is a two-legged animal with a cork-screw soul, a water-logged brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles.

“When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and angels weep in heaven, and the Devil shuts the gates of Hell to keep him out.”

That neither London nor Begunto meant the above definition in a literal way hardly needs mention. That union members are frustrated every time a fellow teacher chooses to help break the strike is why the document went up.

Union members never insist that every single Berlitz employee strike alongside his or her coworkers. They have only asked that teachers refrain from covering struck lessons when it is optional, as it often is. Scabs undermine the hard work, sacrifice and dedication of striking teachers and prolong resolution of the dispute.

One thing I learned from this strike is that there is no way to stay out of it. Each employee is forced by the circumstances of the strike to make a personal decision, which is either: 1) to join the strike; 2) to stay on the sidelines but refuse to cover lessons when it is optional; 3) to help break the strike by choosing to cover struck lessons.

Demonstrating its moderation in comparison with many labor unions, Begunto members have decided to consider only members of the third group as full-fledged “scabs.” In my opinion, it is a difference between courage and cowardice, principle versus pusillanimity.

It is easy to criticize the strike or the union, especially from the sidelines. What is hard is to get up and do something, to make a difference, fight for justice, take action right at the front lines. Begunto members do more than talk ? they act. The small number of teachers and staff who oppose the strike and/or the union will themselves benefit when the union wins higher pay for all.

In fact, thanks to the solidarity, dedication and hard work of union members – and a strike entails quite a bit of hard work – management has already made two pay hike offers, the latest on Sept. 26. At the time of writing, the union was widely expected to reject the second offer as far short of demands. Yet even this offer would never have happened without the efforts of the Begunto strikers.

Most surprisingly, the strike has been very successful as a union-building tool, drawing in many new members impressed that the union is taking positive action.

The right to strike is guaranteed by the Japanese Constitution, the Trade Union Law and international law. An individual has precious little negotiation strength vis-a-vis a big company (or even a small one). A union acting out of solidarity multiplies the negotiating position of its members exponentially. It also turns the workplace from an effective dictatorship into something approaching a democracy.

Teachers at Simul International – like Berlitz Japan a subsidiary of Benesse Corp. – are also striking, “simultaneously,” as it were. In their case, they are fighting for enrollment in Japan’s “shakai hoken” pension and health scheme. The union argues that Simul management is violating both the Health Insurance Law and Pension Insurance Law by failing to enroll its full-time employees.

So Benesse Group has its hands full with big strikes at two of its member companies at the same time.

It’s ironic that some employees, such as the teacher in the recent article in Tokyo’s Metropolis magazine (“Banding Together”), complain that the strike has not yet led to total victory when they themselves are part of the problem. I would say to them that we have not won yet because you have not joined the strike. Strength in numbers – again it hardly needs mentioning.

When more teachers join the strike rather than grumble that it “hasn’t worked yet,” the union will win.

Louis Carlet is Berlitz General Union’s Tokyo Representative, National Union of General Workers Tokyo Nambu.