Last month, news broke that the Federation of All Toyota Workers’ Unions was in talks with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito coalition about some form of cooperation.

The federation is a key part of the larger umbrella Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo). The confederation has traditionally been one of the most important backers of opposition parties, especially the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. The decision by the Toyota workers’ federation could spell trouble for CDP candidates who rely on its backing.

What is the Federation of All Toyota Workers’ Unions?

Formed in 1972, the federation consists of about 357,000 members in 314 affiliated unions for workers on production lines and in sales. It is a major part of the nearly 792,000-member Confederation of Japan Automobile Workers’ Unions.

The federation’s activities include the official backing of seven Lower House and five Upper House members in the opposition CDP, the Democratic Party for the People or those who are not affiliated with a major party. Federation members provide financial support for candidates at election time and assist with their campaigns.

In the prefectures that make up the Chubu region, which is centered around Nagoya and is where Japan’s auto industry is largely concentrated, the federation’s political influence is particularly strong.

What’s the relationship between the federation and Rengo?

Rengo has about 6.8 million members in 48 separate industries nationwide, and offices in each of the nation’s 47 prefectures.

The Confederation of Japan Automobile Workers’ Unions is the second-largest group in Rengo, after the roughly 1.8 million member Japanese Federation of Textile, Chemical, Food, Commercial, Service and General Workers’ Unions. So the Toyota workers’ federation, via the confederation, has a lot of influence within Rengo.

Rengo as a whole usually decides which candidates it will back at election time. These traditionally include opposition parties that emphasize union rights and workers’ rights, while the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in particular has traditionally received much financial and campaign support from industry lobby groups or those not associated with Rengo-affiliated unions.

Why does the federation want to strengthen relations with the ruling parties if Rengo is backing the opposition?

The federation has concerns about the current leadership of the CDP and its policies.

Many CDP members are supported by public workers’ unions, including local government, postal workers’ and teachers’ unions, whose political views and policy priorities are more left-leaning than those of the federation. In addition, many federation members are opposed to working closely with the Japan Communist Party during election time, which the CDP has done in the past and has indicated it will do again in the next general election.

In the July 2019 Upper House election, only 18 of the 44 district candidates and eight of 10 proportional representative candidates backed by Rengo won. Federation members were worried that the Rengo-backed CDP may not have effectively lobbied the strong ruling coalition over their needs, especially on issues directly affecting their work, such as increasing the number of electric and self-driving automobiles — which the ruling coalition has made a political priority. Thus, they felt the need to reach out to the LDP and Komeito.

For their part, the LDP appears to be willing to at least listen. Upper House secretary general Hiroshige Seko told reporters late last month that as the auto industry was a core domestic industry for the country, there was no reluctance to exchange opinions with the federation.

What has been Rengo’s response to the federation’s move?

Rengo President Rikio Kozu said that there was nothing strange about making requests of political parties, including the LDP, concerning industry-specific policies and that the federation’s moves did not oppose the basic policy of Rengo.

Kozu denied that there would be any political effect, especially on Rengo-supported CDP members the federation has been wary of.

But it is unclear what will happen in electoral districts with large numbers of federation members if relations with the LDP are strengthened. A Rengo-backed CDP candidate could face a challenge from a ruling party candidate favored by the federation. A loss by a Rengo-backed CDP candidate to one supported by the federation could influence other Rengo-affiliated members to support other political parties they perceive as being more in tune with their needs, thus weakening the key support base of the CDP.

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