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Unions mull a ‘Labor Party’

The Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), which played the principal role in bringing the Democratic Party of Japan to power in 2009, is at a turning point following the DPJ’s crushing defeat in the general election last December.

At its central executive committee meeting on Aug. 23, the 6.8 million-member labor organization addressed the DPJ’s subsequent overwhelming defeat in the July Upper House election: “It is no exaggeration to say that the DPJ has completely lost (people’s) trust.”

At his meeting with DPJ leader Banri Kaieda on July 30, Rengo President Nobuaki Koga said Rengo will continue to collaborate with the DPJ, but advised the DPJ not to waste time indulging in intraparty bickering.

A local Rengo leader feels that the DPJ has fallen so low in popularity that its resuscitation has become difficult: “Every time I mention the name of the party, people show revulsion.” This may summarize the general sentiment within Rengo: that there is no future for Rengo if it continues to work with the DPJ.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meanwhile, has responded negatively to Rengo’s proposal for a “government-labor summit meeting” between him and Koga, apparently because Rengo gave its full support to the DPJ in the Upper House election campaign while severely criticizing Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party.

With Abe expected to remain in power for some time to come, Rengo’s influence in the political arena will continue to dwindle unless something is done to break the deadlock with the ruling party.

In March, Koga agreed with LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba to meet about four times a year. There has been no followup on this. Those close to Ishiba said he is not eager to hold such meetings, though the LDP and Rengo recognize the importance of securing employment opportunities and raising wages.

So, what is Rengo going to do to break the present impasse now that it can no longer rely on the DPJ and has been given the cold shoulder by the governing party?

One prediction has come from a high-ranking official of the ruling coalition: “I think Rengo will start working on a realignment of political parties with an eye on creating a political party representing labor unions, namely a Labor Party.”

What he means is that an initiative for realigning political parties would be taken by labor unions rather than by political parties such as the Japan Restoration Party and Your Party.

It is said that behind such a move are the intentions of the Social Democratic Party, whose strength has waned as badly as the DPJ’s, and of individual member unions of Rengo that support the SDP.

In a TV program Aug. 18, former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, a former head of the Japan Socialist Party and the SDP — the JSP’s successor party — said the SDP and its supporters should stop worrying about keeping the party alive. He would prefer to build a movement of joint cooperation that overcomes partisan interests. Murayama came from the All-Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers Union (Jichiro), which has had some members elected as Diet members from either the DPJ or the SDP.

He said that achieving such cooperation may take two to three years but that it is important to achieve the goal before the next general election.

The next day, Jichiro Chairman Hideaki Tokunaga told reporters that he was neither for nor against moves among political parties to realign themselves. Clearly, though, Jichiro prefers to see the DPJ and the SDP get together so that Jichiro doesn’t have to support both parties separately.

On Aug. 22, Asahi Shimbun surprised the political world by reporting that the Japan Teachers Union (Nikkyoso) has decided to delete its declared support for the DPJ from its draft 2013-14 campaign platform. This is quite a shock to the DPJ as the 270,000-member Nikkyoso has long supported the party. Incumbent Upper House Vice President Azuma Koshiishi of the DPJ has his political roots in the union.

Thus, Jichiro and Nikkyoso — the only two of the 53 groups constituting Rengo that can mobilize a large number of voters in elections — have made it clear that they no longer are concerned with the names and framework of the DPJ and the SDP.

Rengo President Koga has a relatively good relationship with Ichiro Ozawa, who defected from the DPJ and now heads the People’s Life Party, and thinks mostly along the lines of Ozawa. For Rengo, it would be an attractive alternative to create a new political party of workers by rallying the DPJ, the SDP and People’s Life, if it remains difficult to build close ties with the government and the LDP.

A high-ranking Rengo official bitterly criticized a move within the DPJ to sever ties with Rengo. “Such a move,” he says, “is not realistic. If ties are to be severed, Rengo would cut the ties, not the DPJ.”

This attitude stems from his conviction that following the DPJ’s two consecutive election defeats — in the Lower House election last December and in the Upper House in July — DPJ lawmakers have appeared ready to do anything that Rengo tells them to do.

Although the party has lost many legislative seats, candidates who came from Rengo member unions managed to survive the elections. They now account for about 30 percent of DPJ lawmakers.

If other DPJ lawmakers who received strong election support from Rengo member unions are taken into account, nearly 50 percent of DPJ lawmakers are under strong influence of Rengo.

Immediately after the Upper House election, DPJ chief Kaieda called on Rengo President Koga to thank Rengo for its support during the election campaign. In a subsequent reshuffle of party officials, Kaieda named two former labor union officials to crucial party posts.

Akihiro Ohata became party secretary general, and Akira Gunji became head of the party’s Upper House caucus. This indicates clearly that the DPJ cannot act against the will of Rengo.

Some DPJ lawmakers, such as former party chief Seiji Maehara and ex-party secretary general Goshi Hosono, favor distancing the party from labor unions. But they represents a minority.

The conditions for party realignment on the initiative of Rengo appear almost set. But creating the new party would be tantamount to rebuilding the former Socialist Party if the backgrounds of lawmakers are considered. And there is no guarantee that the new party would pose a serious challenge to the LDP.

Whether Rengo consolidates its control over the DPJ or abandons the party, the labor organization is likely to continue to grope in the dark for some time to come.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the September issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.