Rengo’s uphill battle

The process that saw Mr. Tsuyoshi Takagi elected to the presidency of Rengo (the Japanese Trade Union Confederation), Japan’s largest labor organization, symbolizes the current situation that Japanese workers and labor unions find themselves in.

Mr. Takagi, head of the 830,000-member UI Zensen Domei (the Japanese Federation of Textile, Chemical, Food, Commercial, Service and General Workers’ Unions), the largest private-sector labor union and the second largest member-union of Rengo, was expected to become the top Rengo leader without contest. But shortly before the candidacy deadline, Ms. Momoyo Kamo, head of Zenkoku Union (the Japan Community Union Federation), a 6,000-member group mainly composed of part-time and dispatched workers, raised her hand. She fought a good fight, getting a more-than-expected 107 votes, against 323 votes for Mr. Takagi.

Forty-two invalid and blank votes are believed to be from union representatives critical of Mr. Takagi. Ms. Kamo’s candidacy challenged big labor unions that have been influencing the general direction of Rengo’s activities, including the selection of Rengo’s next top leader through negotiations behind closed doors. It also represented the sentiment of members of Rengo who are against a revision of the pacifist Constitution. Mr. Takagi’s UI Zensen Domei and Mr. Seiji Maehara, the new leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, which so far has had close ties with Rengo, favor such a revision.

Japan’s labor movement is now clearly in a wintry season. Only a fraction of the nation’s labor force is organized. A wide discrepancy in salaries, other benefits and job security exists between workers in regular employment and those in non-regular employment. Public-sector workers now face a government plan to reduce the number of civil servants. Of all the Japanese workers, only 19.2 percent are now union members. When the left-leaning General Council of Trade Unions of Japan (Sohyo) and the right-of-the-center Japanese Confederation of Labor (Domei) merged to form Rengo in 1989, about 8 million workers were under the newly established group’s wings. But Rengo’s membership has now dwindled to 6.7 million.

A fiscal 2003 survey by the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry, made public in February 2005, shows that the number of people working through temporary agencies increased by 10.9 percent from the previous year to about 2.36 million. When Rengo was formed, the number of non-regular workers stood at 8 million, but now they number 12 million, according to Ms. Kamo.

In her candidacy speech, Ms. Kamo said that Rengo is still basically an organization of regularly employed workers, and is failing to catch up with the changes taking place in the labor market. While part-time and temporary workers account for more than 30 percent of all Japanese workers, only 3 percent of them belong to labor unions.

Four years have passed since Rengo first announced a policy of making efforts to organize both non-union workers and non-regular workers. After being elected as Rengo president, Mr. Takagi said that he will make efforts to raise the ratio of organized labor to 20 percent or more within two years, and that Rengo will push for better working conditions for non-regular workers in next year’s spring labor offensive.

Unless Rengo seriously addresses the disadvantageous working conditions from which workers in small enterprises, non-regular workers and women workers suffer, its credibility as the main force in Japan’s labor movement will be damaged. Mr. Takagi is in a good position to do the job because his UI Zensen Domei includes part-time workers in distribution and service industries.

While Rengo must overcome the gap between regular and non-regular workers, it also must cope with the government’s move for streamlining the government through reduction of public servants, who form an important component of Rengo. The government thinks that government-sector jobs that can be done by the private sector should be transferred to the latter. Rengo has the difficult task of working out a strategy that is rational enough to gain understanding from both public-sector labor unions and the public.

Mr. Maehara, the DPJ leader, thinks that an impression that the party only represented the interests of postal workers in its opposition to the postal-services privatization bills led to its losses in the Sept. 11 election. He calls for rethinking the party’s relations with labor unions. How to deal with the DPJ may pose a difficulty to Rengo. But as a labor organization, its priority should be pursuing what it believes is important for attaining social equity. As structural changes happening in both the private and public sectors of Japan are putting strains on workers, Rengo must go back to the basics of helping the socially weak and prove that it is not an organization for the vested interests of large labor unions.