Dennis Tesolat is chair of the General Union based in Osaka. Founded in 1991, the organization is part of a national private sector trade union known as Zenkoku-Ippan (the National Union of General Workers), which belongs to a confederation known as Zenrokyo (National Trade Union Council).
Most of the General Union’s membership are English teachers in the Kansai and Tokai regions, though they also serve teachers across the country when possible. (Tesolat cites a recent success in which they represented assistant language teachers (ALTs) in Gifu Prefecture against the Mizuho City Board of Education.)
“History has made us a union specializing in education,” Tesolat says. “We became strong in negotiations for teachers because our membership is mostly foreign teachers.”
According to Tesolat, there are only two ways to fight unfair labor practices in Japan: through a legal battle or through worker unity.
“The labor laws in Japan are excellent,” he says. “The only problem is that there is no enforcement mechanism for 90 percent of the law.”
No enforcement means that unfair working conditions or contracts must be legally challenged by the individual, a time-consuming and potentially expensive endeavor.
Japan’s labor laws legally require the employer to negotiate with a union, however, and that’s where workers can draw their strength. At a language school, the workers are the economic engine of the company.
“If you have a strike, the company closes down and stops making money,” Tesolat says. “At a university, they’re a little more civilized since it’s not a private company with just one person trying to get the upper hand, but still there is power in numbers, in unity and negotiation from an established entity.”
Union members are also kept well-informed of upcoming issues. For example, Tesolat warns of a new labor law going into effect in 2020 that requires all school board employees to be offered public servant status. He has already seen the ripples of avoidance as boards of education are turning to ALT dispatch companies to avoid having to comply with the new laws.
“About the five-year unconditional contract law, a recent national survey revealed that only about 25 percent of workers nationwide even knew about the change in the law,” Tesolat explains, adding that he suspects many ALTs across the country have no idea about the upcoming 2020 law; but their boards of education do.
The General Union is working to create a national education union in Japan since so many English teachers are on part-time or one-year contracts. For Tesolat, it is an exciting opportunity to support workers across the nation.
“Among the young working population, they’re not starting off with any preconceived notions about a labor union, and they’re ready to unite,” he says. “Young people have a great opportunity to help the labor movement here.”
For more information, visit www.generalunion.org.