With Berlitz beaten but not bowed, union fights on

Six months after court defeat, firm shows no sign of giving up legal fight against teachers

by Patrick Budmar

Before instructors became embroiled in a fierce legal battle with Berlitz Japan, there was a time when the English language school chain’s robust image made it a top choice among foreign job-seekers.

In particular, it was the company’s good reputation over competing language chains that initially attracted Michael and Colette (not their real names) to apply for work at Berlitz.

“I had heard positive things about working there and thought it would be a place that would be good for my future,” Michael says.

Colette also felt that Berlitz was a “global leader” when it came to language education, adding that overall it presented the image of being “a sound company.”

When the instructors completed their mandatory on-the-job training and began teaching regular classes, they found the conditions at Berlitz agreeable and the work rewarding, which came as a relief to Michael in particular.

“After working at a previous company that wasn’t even giving more vacation time for every extra year worked, it seemed like Berlitz was at least better than that place,” he says.

It was the professionalism at Berlitz that first impressed Colette.

“The company genuinely seemed to care about the welfare of the teachers and the education of the students,” she says.

However, once the honeymoon was over, Michael started to notice cracks in the facade.

It was minor things at first, such as when he traveled from school to school and found the management style had a huge influence at each individual language center.

“What you were doing was acceptable and even promoted at one school; the exact thing would not be acceptable at another,” he says. “I found these types of situations have included anything from drinking coffee in the classroom to the clothes you wear to the way you teach.”

Colette also started to pay more attention to the way the company was managed and how it interacted with its employees.

“As time went on, I felt that the company started to care less about the students’ education and more about profits,” she says.

The instructors’ uneasiness with the company peaked in early 2008, when Berlitz operator Benesse Corp. posted strong profits yet teacher salaries remained flat.

Although Michael was not surprised at the time, he admits he was disappointed, adding that it seemed Berlitz had “forgotten that instructors were the core part of the business.”

Colette was just as disheartened that Benesse, which took full control of the company in 2001, had chosen to prioritize Berlitz’s profits over its employees.

“It was as if Berlitz was made to pay for its own takeover, and that Benesse was using the English school as its own piggy bank,” she says.

Berlitz Japan declined to comment on the issues raised in this article.

While instructor salaries remained unchanged, Berlitz had a performance-based evaluation system in place since 1998 for instructors to get raises, until a rank system was introduced in 2005.

Michael says he had no trouble in winning raises based on evaluations However, he admits that he was never a big fan of the system, as it “did not seem to award the bulk majority of people.”

“I think you get to know who really should be getting the top raises,” he explains. “When those people often don’t get it, then there is something wrong with the system.”

It also seemed to Colette that Berlitz’s management was steadily making each point of the evaluation system harder to attain.

“They eventually cut in half the ranks for each step up,” she says.

Whatever their frustrations with Berlitz, Michael and Colette could take solace in the fact they were members of the Berlitz General Union Tokyo (Begunto) and could always seek their advice.

Michael’s first contact with the union was when he first started working at Berlitz and read up on the subject, which impressed him enough to join a few days later.

“After all, it’s a good thing to have a union in a country where you are a minority,” he says.

Colette saw it as a way to have a more open communication channel with the company.

“I have always felt that if management and teacher can communicate their concerns openly and directly, then we can work towards a better solution for all,” she says.

Although Colette joined the union with the intention of protecting her working conditions at Berlitz, Michael joined Begunto, at least initially, because he wanted to understand the Japanese legal system and learn about local labor laws, since he was convinced his previous employer had been breaking many of them.

“At the time, I wasn’t joining because of any reason to do with Berlitz, because I hadn’t been there long enough to see any wrongdoing yet,” he says.

After joining the union, Michael did not keep his membership a secret, as he did not expect it to cause any problems at work.

“In fact, I was proud to say I was a member,” he says. “Knowing Berlitz now, though, I would probably keep it a secret.”

Colette kept her membership under wraps as she was concerned about management potentially targeting Begunto members and forcing them out of the company.

“Some people are worried that if they join the union it will be more difficult to be rehired,” she says.

Begunto entered into negotiations with the company for a “base-up” raise and one-off bonus for instructors in April 2007, but discussions soon become deadlocked when the terms outlined by either side were found to be irreconcilable.

However, this stalemate did not stop Berlitz from holding a party for managers at the five-star Roppongi Hills Grand Hyatt hotel in December that year.

Since the Christmas celebration was held at a time when instructors were attempting to negotiate a better salary, Begunto’s members decided to voice their disapproval by picketing outside the hotel.

Even though Michael and Colette were Begunto members at the time, they did not take part in the demonstration.

“While I did not participate in the strike outside the hotel, I supported the action,” Colette says. Michael claims he did not find out about the picket until after the fact.

Following the demonstration outside the Christmas party, Begunto members began striking lessons across the Kanto region. Rather than walking out en masse, the union deployed a tactic of “spot strikes,” in which individual teachers gave short notice before a lesson of their intention to “down chalk.”

By September 2008, more than 100 Berlitz instructors had gone on strike at over half of the company’s Kanto branches, in what had become the largest strike in the history of Japan’s language school sector.

As the strikes dragged on, Colette found that the atmosphere at her branch gradually deteriorated to the point where it became noticeably “more hostile, especially from the management side.”

As Michael’s branch started filling up with additional instructors on “strike watch,” he also found that the mood changed, but not in an entirely bad way, as he knew most of the people assigned to the duty.

“While I worked, they used the computer to exchange songs and movies, they did arts and crafts in the unused rooms, and they played games to pass the time,” he says. “It was a strange feeling to be working while so many others sat enjoying the day.”

Apart from having a lot more people watching him as he worked, Michael did not find the experience too dissimilar to what he was used to.

“I just did my job as usual and went on strike when it was demanded of me,” he says. “As soon as I went to teach my (last) 8:30 p.m. lesson, the strike-breakers were out the door, as we could obviously no longer strike on that day.”

As Berlitz’s battle with Begunto intensified, Michael found that the issue began to slowly spill over from his work life into his private time, leading him to familiarize himself with the ins and outs of the Japanese legal system.

“Let’s just say the process is slow and I no longer have a lot of faith in the Japanese legal system,” he says.

Colette, on the other hand, often found herself trying to placate concerned friends. “Many of them were afraid that I would lose my job due to all that was going on,” she says.

As increasing numbers of nonunion instructors were sent to branches employing unionized teachers, Colette would often inquire if management had pressured them to stand by and, when needed, fill in for their colleagues.

“Several of the younger teachers often felt pressured to cover strike lessons,” she says.

Over time the strike-breaking teachers became known as “caffeine cowboys,” as Berlitz management had begun assigning instructors to wait at a nearby cafes so that they would be able to cover lessons at a moment’s notice.

According to Michael, the company strategy of devoting money and energy to breaking the strike instead of seeking to resolve it through negotiations only helped to convince doubters that the union might be onto something, boosting membership.

“You can’t claim that you don’t have money but at the same time waste it on unnecessary salaries such as sitting at a coffee shop,” he says. “Those people’s salaries must have been some of the highest they had ever experienced as Berlitz instructors, while strikers’ salaries were at all-time lows.”

Colette concurs, adding that if Berlitz had offered “even half of the money they have used to fight the union,” she believes the entire situation would have been “resolved long ago.”

After nearly a year of spot strikes, memos were posted at all Berlitz branches and letters were sent out to union members in November 2008 that declared the strike illegal and demanded instructors halt industrial action immediately.

Surprised by the development, Michael questioned whether the letters were legal, and why someone from head office would have considered signing off on the move.

“It occurred to me that something was seriously wrong here, even criminal,” he says.

Colette was equally disturbed. “It was as if the company would do anything to get rid of the union,” she says. “By that point, I thought I had seen management try every trick in the book.”

Berlitz still had one card left to play, however, and with the company facing the prospect of the strike dragging into a second year, management dramatically raised the stakes,

In December 2008, Berlitz sued five Begunto representatives and two members of its parent union, the National General Workers Union Tokyo Nambu, for ¥110 million each, claiming that the strikes were illegal and the union was trying to damage the company.

The move caught Michael, Colette and everyone else involved completely off guard.

Michael wondered how Berlitz could possibly be making this claim when just a few days earlier, the head of the company had been making the rounds to branches.

“As far as I know, the president never once mentioned anything about the strikes being illegal,” he says. “You would think he would have said that in his speeches.”

Colette was shocked that any company in Japan, let alone Berlitz, could sue individuals for over ¥100 million each. “Even in the most horrendous cases in Japan where people die, the courts only allow damages in the low ¥10 millions,” she says.

Amid fears striking teachers could be fired by the company — legally or otherwise — Begunto decided to suspend industrial action while its members fought the case.

Michael soon saw his already strict workplace become even stricter.

“We sure don’t have parties for students like we used to anymore,” he says.

Two of the Begunto representatives sued by Berlitz in the original case were dismissed by the company in 2010. One was a U.S. Army reservist who was fired after being ordered back to Afghanistan; the other was denied an extension to unpaid leave while recovering from breast cancer.

After three years of bitterly contested court hearings compounded by numerous delays, Berlitz’s lawsuit was eventually rejected on all counts by the Tokyo District Court in February, a seemingly comprehensive vindication of the long, hard fight by Begunto and its members.

“I don’t think Berlitz realizes how much support the union has now,” Michael says. “Even the so-called caffeine cowboys were excited by the judgment, as they have realized the union was doing the right thing all along.”

However, the relief was short-lived. A week after the district court ruling, Berlitz appealed the case to the Tokyo High Court. The latest hearing was to be held Tuesday, over six months since Begunto’s Feb. 27 victory in the lower court. f

Berlitz also faces two ongoing Tokyo Labor Commission cases brought by the union over unfair labor practices, filed in 2008 and after the teacher dismissals in 2010.

Even though Begunto has seemingly won an important legal battle, members such as Michael and Colette are ambivalent about whether they will be able to win the war.

“This was only round one and the company would continue on at all costs, even to the reputation of the company, in order to get rid of the union,” Colette says.

On one hand, Michael remains perplexed by Berlitz’s decision to keep paying lawyers to wage a campaign that he believes has backfired disastrously on the company. On the other, after living through the past few tumultuous years, he has come to the stark conclusion that the company considers the cost, in both capital and prestige, a price worth paying.

“Berlitz has shown no willingness to do the right thing in the last three years, and I expect that trend to continue,” Michael says. “I would bet on Berlitz dragging this thing out as long as possible.”

“My only hope is that in the end, the amount of money and resources invested so far into the legal battle somehow finds itself back to the people who deserve it the most,” he says. “Namely, the employees.”

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