End to long JR dispute inspires mixed feelings

Former national railway workers have mixed feelings about Friday’s settlement of a 23-year-old dispute over Japan Railway companies’ refusal to hire them when Japanese National Railways was privatized in 1987.

“Sixty of our coworkers have passed away. I deeply regret I can’t share the joy of the resolution with them, but we can embark on a new chapter in our lives,” Shinji Takahashi, chairman of the National Railway Workers Union (Kokuro), said Friday during a press conference at the union’s headquarters in Shimbashi, Tokyo.

Takahashi also said Kokuro would seek to reach an agreement with the JR companies over the issue of reemployment, through labor-management talks.

“I want each JR firm to hire [union members] from a humanitarian point of view,” he said.

After JNR was privatized in 1987, JR companies did not hire a total of 1,047 JNR workers. Because 966 of them were Kokuro members, the union said they had been discriminated against. An executive of East Japan Railway Co. said he felt strange about the government’s proposal to pay an average settlement of 22 million yen per person. Now in his 50s, he remembers when about 70,000 workers left the railway industry at the time of the privatization.

“One of my colleagues, who loved being a conductor, was holding back tears when he had to join another industry,” the executive said. “Thinking about people like him, it’s hard for me to unreservedly be happy for the people who will be released from years of struggle.”

Reluctance on rehiring

Kokuro has been demanding “employment, pensions and settlements,” but a solution to the reemployment issue has yet to be found due to the reluctance of JR companies.

When the national railway was broken up and privatized, JR companies downsized their workforces by about 70,000 people and transferred employees to the Tokyo metropolitan area from such far-distant locations as Hokkaido and Kyushu.

The companies feel it would be difficult for those who went through the downsizing and transfers to accept the hiring of the union members. Also, the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that JR companies have no responsibility to hire the workers in the case.

According to the plaintiffs, about 260 of the 910 who will receive settlement money from the government want to be reemployed. In the agreement, however, the government asks JR companies to hire only about 200 people.

This limited recruitment, together with changes in the amount of settlement money, gives the public the impression that the resolution is a murky political settlement.

Momentum gathered in 2000 for a political resolution, but a new lawsuit filed by the union side and other considerations prevented it.

JR workplaces change with the times, so the longer it takes to reach a resolution, the harder it will be for the plaintiffs to return to railway jobs.

What is required now is to face the reality that the prolonged conflict is making the people involved suffer, and to work to build healthy union-management relations.