Berlitz loses suit over union teacher strikes

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

The Tokyo District Court on Monday rejected a lawsuit filed by Berlitz Japan Inc. that sought damages from union executives and its teachers for waging strikes and causing substantial damage to the company.

Presiding Judge Hiroshi Watanabe sided with the labor union and its workers, saying acts by the defendants “do not comprise any illegality.”

“There is no reason to deny the legitimacy of the strikes,” including their purpose or process, the court ruled.

Berlitz, the plaintiff, filed the lawsuit in December 2008. The language school chain claimed executives of the National Union of General Workers Tokyo Nambu, and affiliate Berlitz General Union Tokyo (Begunto) — particularly five activist, non-Japanese Berlitz teachers — conducted illegal strikes for 11 months beginning in December 2007.

According to the plaintiffs, union activities including coordinated strikes and delay of written notice of strikes “put the company’s existence itself in peril.” The plaintiffs claimed that acts by the defendants affected 3,455 classes during the span and caused some of its students to leave the school.

The company had sought compensation of ¥110 million each from Nambu, Begunto, an executive from each group and the five Berlitz teachers. The strikes involved more than 100 unionized foreign teachers of the chain.

The defendants meanwhile had said their strikes were within their rights, after Berlitz in 2007 rejected their requests, including a demand for a 4.6 percent raise and a bonus payment equal to a month’s pay.

According to the defendants, teachers at Berlitz hadn’t won an across-the-board raise for over 16 years. They claimed the lawsuit violated their right to union activities and collective action.

While similar civil cases have often been settled out of court, the case saw an extended period of negotiations that ultimately ended without an agreement.

Defense lawyer Yukiko Akutsu, who criticized the plaintiffs for causing the case to drag on for over three years, called Monday’s ruling “a complete victory” for her clients.

While touching on the possibility that the plaintiffs may file an appeal, Akutsu told a meeting following the ruling that the court “recognized that each of the strikes was legitimate.”