Top court rules against ex-JNR workers

Split decision acknowledges unfair labor practices but dooms unionists

The long legal battle over the fate of former employees of the now-defunct Japanese National Railways seeking to be hired by the successor carriers created with JNR’s 1987 privatization ended in their defeat Monday at the hands of the Supreme Court.

In a split decision by the First Petty Bench, the top court ruled that the Japan Railway group firms bear no liability for the unfair labor practices of their predecessor.

Although presiding Justice Takehisa Fukazawa and Justice Niro Shimada said the JR firms bear this responsibility as employers and said the case should be sent back to the Tokyo High Court, they were overruled by a majority opinion of three other justices.

The decision came after the Central Labor Relations Commission, the top government labor mediation body, appealed court rejections of its orders that the JR carriers re-screen or hire 951 of the 1,047 former JNR workers who were denied jobs in the group upon the 1987 privatization and were eventually sacked in 1990 by JNR Settlement Corp.

The top court’s decision brings to a close the JNR workers’ legal battle. Many of them, now aging, have campaigned for employment by the JR groups while making their living at part-time jobs.

The heavily indebted JNR was privatized and split into seven JR group firms in April 1987. At that time, roughly 7,600 JNR employees, many of them members of a hardline union that opposed the privatization, were refused employment by the JR companies.

JNR Settlement was set up to dispose of more than 20 trillion yen in debts that JNR had accumulated.

The body also took over the 7,600 ex-workers under a three-year program through 1990 to find them jobs — in line with a government pledge at the time of the privatization that none of the JNR workers would be “thrown out onto the street.”

More than 2,000 of them were subsequently hired by the JR group firms, while roughly 3,000 others found jobs elsewhere.

But of the 1,047 who were eventually fired by the settlement body at the end of the three-year program, 966 belonged to the National Railway Workers Union (Kokuro), which was the foremost opponent of the JNR privatization and breakup.

Kokuro members insisted that their dismissal, caused by their refusal to leave the union, was an unfair labor practice and a union-busting tactic.

They said they were urged ahead of the privatization to leave the union if they wanted jobs at the JR companies, and that they received unfair treatment in the additional hiring by JR firms during the three-year program.

The labor commission had accepted their arguments, concluding there were unfair labor practices and the JR group discriminated against most of the 1,047 in hiring workers from JNR.

But the JR group, including East Japan Railway Co., West Japan Railway Co. and Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai), sued to reverse the commission’s orders.

In a bid to seek a political settlement over the employment dispute, in 2000 the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the now-defunct New Conservative Party, which constituted the ruling bloc, reached an agreement with the Social Democratic Party under which the bloc would ask the JR firms to hire Kokuro members on condition that Kokuro admit the successor carriers bore no legal responsibility for not employing them.

The SDP had close ties with the unionists and was representing their interests.

The agreement collapsed last December, however, after Kokuro leaders failed to expel nearly 300 members who opposed the proposal.

In Monday’s ruling, the Supreme Court determined that the JNR reform law clearly separated the responsibilities of JNR and its successors in the selection of workers to be hired by the JR companies.

If JNR had engaged in unfair labor practices in the selection process, the responsibility lies with JNR and JNR Settlement Corp., the top court ruled.

In their minority opinions, Justices Fukazawa and Shimada argued that the current JR firms bear legal responsibility for JNR’s unfair labor practices. They also said the possibility cannot be ruled out that the Kokuro members were discriminated against in the additional hiring by the JR firms.

Top JR executives expressed satisfaction with the top court ruling. JR East President Mutsutake Otsuka said the ruling was significant in that it recognized the legitimacy of the company’s argument.

Some former JNR workers, on the other hand, denounced the ruling.

“There are so many dismissed workers. The government bears a responsibility to settle the matter,” said Mitomu Yamaguchi, 51, a former JNR worker in Tosu, Saga Prefecture.

Yamaguchi, who joined JNR in 1974, said he campaigned for employment as a Kokuro member because he wanted to return to his former job in the engineering department.

While he was employed by JNR Settlement, its officials only gave him photocopies of recruitment ads run in newspapers, he said.

Akinori Ishizawa, 45, a former worker at Otoineppu Station in northern Hokkaido, said he has spent more time on the legal battle for re-employment than with JNR. His son, now a local high school student, has never seen him in his JNR uniform.