Shunto is in full swing. Or so it should be. Or so they say. Shunto is the Japanese word for the annual spring round of wage negotiations conducted between big business and trade unions. This “spring offensive” used to feature large in the annual economic calendar. As the deflationary 1990s and beyond set in, this offensive became an offensive no more. Faced with the prospect of corporate bankruptcies and accompanying job losses, labor unions rapidly lost their teeth.

Gone are the days when the leaders of the large industry-wide unions were referred to as kings and emperors. In such times, a mere prime minister would balk at face-to-face meetings with those elites of the working classes. A head of government could not possibly compete with the clout and influence enjoyed by the captains of the labor movement.

Media reports suggest that shunto is back. Given the pressure that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has brought to bear on both businesses as well as the unions, it is widely held that the unions are in a good position to go for monthly wage increases rather than just one-off bonus payments. At long last the time has come for labor unions to claw back some of the power that they have let slip through their fingers over past years. Yet again, or so they say.

Is any of this true? Are we about to see union power on the rise again? Would that it were so. Yet the reality seems to be far from the case. Even if the large unions manage to secure some wage increases for regular employees of large corporations, that is not going to help alleviate the economic difficulties faced by the irregular working poor. Indeed if companies try to compensate for the cost increases they incur by raising full-time employee wages, this is liable to lead to even more greater hardship for workers on part-time contracts. Such a development surely cannot be counted as a triumph for the unions.

Shunto is a word that held meaning and resonance when all working people were permanent employees on company payrolls. Under those circumstances labor unions could say that they were campaigning for workers’ rights merely by negotiating wage increases. That is no longer so. Indeed mere wage bargaining has never really been the basic function of labor unions. That is really not what labor unions are for. Their single most important function is to stand up for workers’ basic human rights. To the extent that securing wage increases for the salarymen of big businesses helped that cause, that was fine. But the world is a very different place now.

Somewhere along the line, labor unions seem to have left behind their role as upholders of human rights and the labor movement. Labor unions that do not engage in the labor movement are a strange species of being indeed. Unless and until they start to remember what they really stand for, there is not a hope in a million that the return of the shunto will make any meaningful difference.

It is very odd that unionization rates should be falling at a time when the poverty rate is rising and less and less people are able to secure decent wages in Japan. Now, if at any time, unions should come to the fore as defenders of the working poor. The shunto ought to be fought for all working people. And all working people is an increasingly nonuniform concept in the Japan of today.

Shunto is not just about economic point scoring, it is about the right to live. Unions should be united in that awareness.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.

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