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Japan’s Labor Federations To Merge as United Front

November 19, 1987

TOKYO (AP) _ Japan’s labor unions, reeling from decades of declining worker support, are seeking rejuvenation in a new confederation that they hope will give them more clout.

Confronting the inertia of an apathetic and increasingly white-collar pool of workers, 62 unions from four federations are merging Friday into the Japanese Private Sector Trade Union Confederation, called Rengo in Japanese.

The new body, representing 5.6 million workers, will focus on better working conditions and shorter hours, rather than the traditional labor aim of higher pay.

″They are merging because they can wield more power as one body rather than as separate groups,″ said Tsutsumi Yakabe, assistant director of the Japan branch of the International Labor Organization.

Japan’s unionization rate has fallen steadily since the late 1940s when more than 50 percent of the labor force was organized. In 1986, according to the Ministry of Labor, the rate fell to a record low 28.2 percent, or 12.3 million people out of a total work force of 43.8 million.

Masakazu Tsukamoto, assistant director of the trade union division at the ministry, attributed the decline to the burgeoning service sector and the increasing disenchantment of younger workers with the country’s unions.

″White-collar workers and the younger generation don’t feel any attraction to the unions,″ Tsukamoto said.

″Before the war, people joined the unions to protect their jobs. But now, because of growing affluence and job security in Japan, labor and management enjoy a good working relationship,″ he said.

With the formation of the new national body, two of the four federations will disband completely and a third is expected to do so soon, making the new body by far the largest grouping of private-sector unions.

The fourth and largest federation, with 4.4 million members, is the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan. Its private-sector unions are joining Rengo now, and its largest member unions, from the public sector, will do so in 1990, completing the unification of the unions in the new confederation.

The four federations have been bickering for decades, mainly over political issues, contributing to worker disenchantment, analysts say.

By contrast, labor-management relations are ″exceptionally healthy,″ said James C. Abegglen, president of the Asia Advisory Service Inc. consulting firm in Tokyo. ″There’s no picking over the bones of the company″ during labor confrontations, he said.

Workers at Nissan Motor, the world’s fourth largest automaker, for example, have not staged a strike since 1953, when management announced it was closing its plants during a four-month dispute that brought the company to the verge of bankruptcy.

″The workers want to do what is best for the company,″ said Tsukamoto, reflecting a traditional Japanese loyalty to the employer. Virtually guaranteed lifetime employment and near family-style concern by the largest companies for their workers in turn helps nurture that close bond.

Strikes have become largely a formality across the country. ″Shunto,″ the traditional spring labor offensive when workers don headbands and strike for higher pay, rarely costs companies more than a few work hours.

According to the Labor Ministry, Japan lost 257,000 man-days to labor disputes in 1985, while the United States and Britain both lost nearly 6 million man-days each to strikes.

Employers gave wage increases averaging 3.5 percent this year, at a time of zero inflation, compared with average raises of 32.9 percent in 1972, which was double the inflation rate that year.

Unlike past struggles focusing solely on higher pay, the new confederation will campaign for better working conditions, including increased benefits and shorter working hours, organizers say.

″Japanese salarymen have the highest income level in the world, but their daily lives don’t reflect any of the merits of such high pay,″ said Yoshio Sugai, assistant general secretary of the Japan Private Sector Trade Union Council, which is helping form the new federation.

″The new movement will seek to establish a higher standard of living as in Europe and the United States,″ Sugai said, adding that ″shorter working hours and better working environments will be major prerequisites.″

Hourly wages in 1985 averaged 1,439 yen, now worth $10.73, compared with an average $9.53 for American workers, according to Japanese government figures. The work week is 48 hours, but the government is considering cutting it to 46 hours, and eventually to 40 hours.

The uniting of the labor movements could have political repercussions. The four existing federations are divided between support for the Japan Socialist Party and the smaller, more conservative Democratic Socialist Party.

The two parties split in the mid-1950s, and have since failed to mount a serious challenge to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Recent reports have suggested the two parties are considering reuniting.

″The parties are worried about losing their pillar of support,″ Sugai said. ″They will realize they will be better equipped to counter the new union as one rather than as separate groups.″