The role of labor unions

Japanese workers mark this year’s May Day amid continued hard economic times and a harsh employment situation. This is an opportune time for serious discussion on the role labor unions can play to create a society where people can toil with hope for the future.

Japan’s unemployment rate in February remained stuck at relatively high 4.9 percent. (The government said Friday the jobless rate for March increased to 5 percent.)

In 2009, full-time workers grossed an average monthly wage of 294,500 yen ($3,130), including allowances, but excluding overtime pay and bonuses, according to the labor ministry. The figure represents the fourth consecutive year of decrease. Also, the margin of decrease, 1.5 percent from 2008, was the largest since 1976 when comparable data became available.

Bearing the brunt of the job crunch are non-regular workers and employees of small and midsize companies.

Many of the requests for advice received by the Labor Consultation Center, a nonprofit organization, come from people working for smaller companies. Non-regular workers accounted for nearly 30 percent of the inquiries. The center, which is supported by the National Union of General Workers Tokyo Tobu, received a record 600 or so requests for consultation in March. Thirty percent involved issues related to dismissal.

As globalization intensifies, many companies are locked in fierce competition with overseas rivals. Many full-time workers have been replaced by dispatched and other non-regular staff. While these people have weaker job security, they now account for one-third of the nation’s work force.

As a result, there is a strong sense of crisis within Rengo (The Japanese Trade Union Confederation), the nation’s largest labor umbrella organization.

At Rengo’s central May Day rally held Thursday in Tokyo, Rengo President Nobuaki Koga called for “solidarity among all workers.” The rally was attended by many non-regular workers. This is because the May Day meeting for such people, which until last year was held separately, has been integrated into the central event. Three years ago, Rengo set up a special center to help non-regular workers.

For this year’s shunto spring labor negotiations, Rengo has promised to do more to improve the working conditions of all working people. It has also begun talks with the temporary staffing service industry for better working conditions for temporary workers.

Rengo’s mainstream members are company-based unions that organize mainly full-time employees of large companies. These unions have been supporting the traditional Japanese system of lifetime employment and seniority-based pay scales. As these traditions have been crumbling, however, Rengo is under immense pressure to tackle issues related to the new reality.

Corporate activities are straddling national borders, while differences in employment conditions between regular and non-regular workers are growing in and outside the nation. Given this background, labor unions will keep losing their influences if they continue to remain focused on domestic problems without seeking international cooperation.

If Japanese labor unions intend to adjust to this age of globalization, they should, for instance, make policy proposals to spread the European-style principle of an “equal wage for work of equal value” to narrow the wage gap between regular and non-regular workers. At the same time, they need to cooperate more closely with their overseas counterparts.

A good start would be for the company-based unions belonging to Rengo to demand better treatment of non-regular workers during their negotiations with the management. Through their actions, they should demonstrate their commitment to improving the fortunes of fellow workers, despite differences in employment status.

Unions should be inspired by the achievement at Hiroshima Electric Railway Co., which has put all its non-regular workers with renewable one-year employment contracts on the regular payroll.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama attended Rengo’s May Day rally. The organization provided the largest power base of the Democratic Party of Japan in last year’s Lower House election.

But such endorsement by the nation’s leader is meaningless unless labor unions start speaking out and acting for the well-being of all workers.