Kokuro to drop lawsuits against Japan Railways

The National Railway Workers Union (Kokuro) voted Monday to drop lawsuits filed against the Japan Railway group over the dismissal of former Japanese National Railways employees who were let go when the railway was privatized in 1987.

After a heated debate by Kokuro leaders at the union’s extraordinary convention in Tokyo, the union endorsed a proposal to cancel litigation by a vote of 77-31.

Under the proposal, the ruling bloc, which suggested the plan in 2000 with the Social Democratic Party, will urge the JR group firms to hire Kokuro members fired in the JNR privatization, on condition that Kokuro acknowledge the JR firms bear no legal responsibility for failing to employ them.

But the ruling coalition — the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito, and New Conservative Party — is upset because the union has failed to secure a consensus on the issue. The coalition had warned Kokuro on April 26 it would withdraw the proposal if the union failed to accept it by Thursday.

In an address to the gathering, Kokuro Chairman Shoichi Takashima said he feels responsible for the ruling bloc’s mistrust of the union, noting that internal divisions over the matter have blocked progress.

“If it will help bring about the conditions under which a solution can be found in the swiftest possible manner, I do not mind dealing with the contradictions (within our organization) that the coalition has pointed out,” he added.

Observers said the deal might still take a few twists and turns before it is fully settled, because although Monday’s vote enables the union to continue discussions based on the ruling coalition’s offer, an internal rift remains — as does the need to negotiate with JR firms.

Thousands of workers were fired in the privatization of JNR, which was subsequently divided into six regional passenger railroads, a freight carrier and other smaller entities.

The JR firms include three listed companies — East Japan Railway Co., West Japan Railway Co. and Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai).

Although Kokuro voted to accept the coalition’s settlement plan 78-40 at its convention in January 2001, the decision created a rift, and the union also endorsed a demand to have the Supreme Court hand down a ruling in the ongoing dismissal case.

Since then, 283 Kokuro members have filed a damages suit over their dismissal against Japan Railway Construction Public Corp., the public entity that took over the work of disposing of JNR assets from JNR Settlement Corp. when it was dissolved in 1998. This move angered the ruling coalition, which called it a contradiction of the union’s agreement to accept the coalition’s proposal.

Kokuro also decided Monday to reach a conclusion on whether to expel opponents within the union — specifically those who have sued the public corporation — at this summer’s regular convention.

But despite this progress, some within the ruling coalition said it is still too early to tell how things will go.