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Andrew Glyn


Labour harmony sliding out of tune

(April 1981)

From Militant, No. 549, 24 April 1981, p. 11.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The media throughout the capitalist world love to portray Japanese labour relations scene as one of unruffled harmony.

But it is a ‘harmony’ maintained by intense discrimination and repression whenever the trade unions struggle for their members’ interests.

A very important tactic used by the bosses in Japan has been to split militant unions when they develop and replace them with stooge company unions. A classic example of this occurred in Japan Airlines (JAL).

The union for JAL’s ground staff in the mid-fifties was a docile organisation, but dissatisfaction with pay and conditions led to the election of a much more aggressive leadership. Substantial improvements were won.

The management immediately started their efforts to weaken the newly-conscious union. First they proposed revision of the collective agreement won by the union less than a year before.

After this they tried to have one of their puppets elected to the chairmanship of the union. When this manoeuvre was decisively defeated on two occasions, management decided to split the union.

In 1965 they were successful when they threatened that employees who did not cross over to the new union would suffer in terms of jobs, promotion, etc. Unfortunately the overwhelming majority where terrorised into joining the new union, leaving a couple of hundred in the original one.

Then the discrimination began. In 1967, the management introduced a “performance-based” allowance which, to quote a Japanese paper, “resulted in a wide gap in promotions and wages” between the two unions during the subsequent ten years.

For example, a 48-year old former chairman of the minority group, who joined the airline in 1955 is still a chief of the lowest rank whilst his contemporaries belonging to the majority union have mostly been promoted ... As a result his monthly wage is 260,000 Yen, compared with 450,000 for those in the majority union.

What the paper did not report, but what Mr Orgura, the former chairman, told me, was that he had virtually been exiled for ten years, sent to manage JAL offices in places like Karachi and Tehran where it was quite impractical for him to take his family, and where, of course, he was isolated from other militants.

The minority union has kept up a continuous struggle against this discrimination. Finally, in February last year, 13 years after a compliant was originally filed, the Tokyo District Labour Relations Commission found that JAL had discriminated and should pay over £1 million in back pay to 247 members of the minority union.

So far JAL has refused to comply with this order, but the workers are confident of success and that when they succeed they will be able to win over the majority of their fellow-workers from the rotten company union.

The present leader of the union, Shiro Wakatsuki, explained to me that there is frequently a lot of sympathy among members of the company union for those attempting to fight the company.

The example was quoted of the JAL pilots’ union which was split in the same way, leaving only 8 out of 1,000 in the original union. Whilst these eight were struggling against the discrimination they were supported by donations secretly given by their colleagues in the company union who were frightened of the consequences of open support.

Management lost the case in the Labour Relations Court and eventually has to reinstate the four strike leaders and the union reunited.

Also in the transport industry, but at the other end of the size spectrum is Kukoro, the Japan National Railway Workers’ Union, with over a quarter of a million members.

Punishments for industrial action

In 1948 under orders from the US Occupation all workers in the public sector, including Japan National Railways (JNR) were totally and uniformly banned by law from taking strike action. Since 1953 management has taken punitive measures against literally thousands of Kokuro members for taking part in industrial action in support of wage claims and of the right to strike.

Up to mid-1979 441 workers have been sacked, 4,238 have been suspended, 72,118 have suffered wage cuts, as well as 306,345 cases of reprimands and warnings which can also result in lost promotion, pensions, etc.

Supporting workers who have suffered loss of job or wage cuts has cost Kokuro £40 million over the years; they are also facing a court case from JNR for a similar sum arising from an 8-day strike in 1975 for the right to strike.

The number and severity of punitive actions taken by JNR are related entirely to the political circumstances. In 1970 and 1971 the management carried out a vicious campaign of terror against trade union activists involving third-degree-type interrogation of, and threats against, militants.

In each of those years 50–60 workers were dismissed for taking industrial action. Since 1976 no workers have been dismissed and in 1979 no measures were taken against strikers in the hope of scoring union agreement for redundancies. But in June last year JNR announced that 304 workers would be suspended for up to one year, 1,491 would suffer pay cuts of up to 10% for up to one year, 5,399 will be denied wage increases that year, and over 90,000 given written warnings.

Management has taken the offensive again in order to try and force through a reduction of the workforce from 420,000 to 350,000.

So much for labour relations harmony Japanese-style.

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