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Berlitz union wins raise, bonus in suit settlement

¥110 million claim against teachers , union execs dropped, ending four-year fight

by James Mccrostie

The four-year legal battle between management and teachers at Berlitz Japan was declared over Thursday as both sides signed an agreement to end the company’s lawsuit against union officials.

Claiming an 11-month strike by unionized teachers to be illegal, Berlitz Japan had sued five teachers, two union executives and Begunto, the teachers’ union, for ¥110 million.

In addition to dropping its suit, the company agreed to pay current union members a base-up raise and a lump-sum bonus to the union. Current Begunto President Paul Kennedy said the “lump sum can be designated for use by the union membership,” and that the union has yet to come to a decision on what to do with the money.

“The union is very happy with the amounts,” said Louis Carlet, former National Union of General Workers (NUGW) case officer for Begunto, who was named in the suit.

The agreement prohibits the disclosure of financial details to anyone outside the union. However, during 2012 labor negotiations the union had demanded a 3 percent base-up raise and a lump-sum bonus equivalent to one month’s pay for its members.

Despite the deal, it appears unlikely union members will end up receiving more pay than nonunionized teachers, said Tadashi Hanami, professor emeritus at Sophia University and a former chair of the Central Labor Relations Commission. “In theory the pay raise could be given only to union members, but the employer may eventually raise outside workers’ pay. Otherwise the union influence will increase sooner or later.”

Berlitz Japan did not reply to emails offering the company an opportunity to comment on the settlement in the days before going to press.

In return for the raise and bonus, Begunto signed up to new rules governing future industrial action. The union must give the company three weeks’ notice of its intent to strike, during which time negotiations would continue. Once industrial action begins, the union agreed it would give 45 minutes notice before striking a particular lesson.

“I think that’s a big concession on the union’s part, and that’s something management was desperate for,” said Carlet, who now serves as executive president of Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union (Tozen). “We all think it will make it more difficult to do effective strikes because it gives the company time to organize scabs.” But the union hopes management “will negotiate seriously, in good faith, so we won’t have to strike.”

The agreement also sets out new rules for collective bargaining. Negotiations will be held in English and the company will translate for any non-English speakers on the management side. Berlitz Japan also promised to provide more financial information to the union during negotiations.

In addition, the company agreed not to use warning letters sent to striking teachers during the dispute in future disciplinary actions, or in any way that could negatively affect the individuals concerned. However, the letters, also placed in the teachers’ personnel files, won’t be retracted.

Reaching a deal involved “a lot of work and a lot of intense pressure,” said Carlet. “I felt a lot of responsibility. Because it was such a famous dispute, we had to bring it to a positive conclusion.” The final settlement is “an enormous weight off my shoulders,” he added.

Kennedy also expressed relief at the settlement. “There’s a sense of accomplishment for being able to help our members. It’s over, we reached a settlement and I’m happy,” he said. “I’m still waiting for the sense of euphoria that probably comes a bit later. I didn’t put up my Christmas tree for the four years while being sued, but New Year’s can be celebrated with peace and hope.”

The dispute began in 2007, after union representative met with managers and demanded a 4.6 percent raise for all employees, a one-time bonus equal to a month’s pay and enrollment in Japan’s health insurance and pension systems.

After repeated negotiation sessions yielded little progress, union members began strike action on Dec. 13, 2007, by picketing outside the Berlitz managers’ Christmas party at the Roppongi Hills Grand Hyatt hotel.

The action eventually grew into the longest and largest sustained strike by language teachers in Japan. Over the course of the 11-month strike, 108 teachers of English, Spanish and French struck 3,455 lessons in walkouts across Kanto. “As far as I know this was the largest language school strike in the world,” said Carlet.

The union called a halt to industrial action after Berlitz Japan management sent letters to striking teachers in November 2008 telling them the strike was illegal and demanding they stop walking out. Begunto then filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the Tokyo Labor Commission alleging that Berlitz’s letter amounted to illegal interference with the strike.

A month later, Berlitz Japan sued the union for ¥110 million, claiming the strike was illegal. The lawsuit named the five teachers who served as volunteer Begunto executives and two NUGW Tokyo Nambu officials: President Yujiro Hiraga and Carlet. NUGW Tokyo Nambu and its Begunto branch were also listed as defendants.

Berlitz Japan claimed the union’s tactic of giving last-minute notice before striking lessons made it difficult for the company to bring in replacement teachers and was designed to harm the company.

After a little over three years of legal wrangling, the Tokyo District Court rejected Berlitz Japan’s claims on Feb. 27, 2012. In its ruling, the court wrote: “There is no reason to deny the legitimacy of the strike in its entirety and the details of its parts — the objective, the procedures, and the form of the strike. Therefore there can be no compensation claim against the defendant, either the union or the individuals. And therefore it is the judgement of this court that all claims are rejected.”

A week after the district court ruling, Berlitz appealed the case to the Tokyo High Court. This resulted in more court-mediated negotiation sessions.

Carlet believes there are three factors behind the timing of the final settlement. “One reason is because we completely won the first round. A second reason is the union was preparing to strike again,” he said.

In August, Begunto sent Berlitz Japan a letter that set a deadline of Sept. 5 to reach an agreement or face renewed strikes. In early September, Begunto members handed out pamphlets in front of Berlitz’s Omotesando, Aoyama 1-chome and Shinagawa language centers.

“It’s possible about the threat of a strike factored in hastening a settlement, (but) I honestly don’t know,” said Kennedy. “I gave up trying to second-guess Berlitz long ago.”

According to Carlet, the third key to clinching the deal was that the union had a great team of lawyers.

In September the company raised its settlement offer to the union, though it took until December to iron out the details. The entire union membership voted on the deal and acceptance was “pretty overwhelming,” said Carlet.

The union says it is now hoping for a fresh start in relations with management. “We look forward to working positively with Berlitz Japan now that the case has been settled,” said Kennedy.

While the headline case may have been settled, one other legal battle remains unresolved. The union will continue fighting a suit filed with the Tokyo Labor Commission to have a dismissed union executive member reinstated. The teacher received word of his dismissal just before shipping out to Afghanistan as a U.S. Army reservist at the end of July 2009.

According to Begunto members, after being ordered to deploy to Afghanistan, Berlitz Japan told the teacher he could take a leave of absence of less than a year, and that he’d have to quit if he needed more than 12 months. Two days before he left for Afghanistan the company fired him. According to the dismissal letter, his performance was subpar and hurting the company’s image. “The union believes strongly that the teacher’s dismissal was because he was the only striker at Yokohama,” said Carlet.

Begunto is also working to have Catherine Campbell, another fired teacher named in the suit, reinstated. Campbell was sacked in July 2010 while she was on leave recovering from breast cancer.

The hard-fought final settlement in the main case should demonstrate to workers that if they have strong solidarity and are willing to fight over the long term, they can make gains, said Carlet. “The whole case raises awareness that you can strike in Japan. The right to strike is strongly guaranteed in Japan.” However, the drawn-out dispute also shows that “there’s no quick fixes in Japan — everything takes a long time. You have to be in it for the long term if you want to win.”

According to Hanami, four years is “not a particularly long battle.” That said, “both parties have lost time and energy enough to learn how expensive it is to have bad industrial relations,” he added. “They must have learned something from this waste of time, energy and money on both sides, although the union and their lawyers gained most.”

Past Zeit Gist articles on this case can be found at: www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20080506zg.html; www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20080930zg.html; www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20090217zg.html; www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20090428zg.html; www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20100727a1.html; www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20120306a1.html; and www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20120904zg.html. From today, the Zeit Gist column becomes The Foreign Element. Send your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.