Nineteen years ago, I first came to Japan to work as an English teacher at Nova Group. On my third day of teacher training in Tokyo, I thought I’d sized up my trainer well enough to drop the U-bomb in conversation. “So what do you think of the Nova teachers union?” I asked. “I think you should join it,” he replied, in his strong Yorkshire accent.

What he said next cut through all the microeconomic dogmas that dismiss trade unions as rent-seeking cartels. The union, he explained, acted as an early warning system for the company, alerting it to problems in labor practices that could otherwise progress to expensive, confrontational legal action, with all the bad publicity that implied. Perhaps Nova ultimately failed to heed the union’s advice, but I have kept his wisdom in mind down the years in my own (sometimes unsuccessful) union-organizing efforts.

Of course, the primary aim of unions is to bargain for improved wages and working conditions on behalf of their membership. As manufacturing industries hollow out in postindustrial economies worldwide, and their labor markets divide between minorities of highly paid professionals and growing numbers of poorly paid, insecurely employed workers, the case for renewed union activism has never appeared stronger. However, many of the working class occupations that were once central to trade union cultures have disappeared, and the service and gig economy jobs that have often replaced them seem especially resistant to union organizing.

Japan has been subject to the same postindustrial workforce transformations, but is it also culturally inhospitable to unions? I have heard other foreign residents in Japan suggest it is. Some claim Japan’s “harmony culture” discourages confrontational union activism, or they believe that Japanese labor laws are somehow less developed and less liberal than they are in Western countries. And, of course, there is the not entirely true opinion that foreign English teachers suffer acute discrimination in working conditions and wages — which unions are powerless to challenge.

Events at the University of Tokyo in the last two years should give reason to revise these opinions. After months of negotiations with the Union of University Part-time Lecturers in Tokyo Area and the University of Tokyo Faculty and Staff Union, which represented full-time contract and part-time teachers and administrative staff, the university agreed in December 2017 to abolish a system of limited-term contract employment covering some 8,000 workers.

This constituted a major reversal for a trend among Japanese universities to hire more teaching staff on limited-term contracts: The percentage of such (full-time) instructors under the age of 40 at Japanese universities had risen to 64 percent from 39 percent between 2007 and 2016.

This trend had been complicated by a 2013 amendment to the Labor Contract Law, intended to improve job security for limited-term contract part- and full-time workers. The amendment provides for them to apply for and be granted conversion to permanent part- or full-time status, if during a period exceeding five years beginning in April 2013 they have worked for the same employer continuously on single or multiple contracts.

Against trade union objections, a number of employers — including universities — resorted to subterfuge to prevent such conversions from taking place, by dismissing employees finishing contracts short of the five-year limit after April 2013, or by imposing a six-month “cooling off” period between five-year limited-term contracts to subvert the “continuous employment” criterion.

The abolition of the limited-term employment system at the University of Tokyo allows contract full- or part-time administration staff and (from April this year) part-time teachers to apply for, and be granted, permanent employment after over five years of service, in compliance with the 2013 amended law. Arbitrary term limits to contract employment have been abolished.

There are exceptions: full-time but non-tenured contract instructors will only be able to apply for permanent status after 10 years of service, in accordance with a legal “exception” to the 2013 amendment, originally intended to apply to scholars participating in limited-term research projects. However, they will now be protected from contract term limits and “cooling off periods” that would undermine their eligibility for consideration as “continuously employed” after 10 years of service.

Non-academic employees currently subcontracted to the University of Tokyo by dispatch companies, including canteen workers, cleaners, gardeners and security staff, are, unfortunately, not covered by these changes.

How to explain this success? Certainly, the unions ran a well-organized, highly publicized campaign. There were also legal and moral considerations that made their negotiating position especially strong.

First, the University of Tokyo’s efforts to evade the “continuous employment” criterion of the 2013 amendment, and to change the terms of staff employees’ employment contracts without consultation constituted potential infringements of labor law.

Second, a majority of limited-term contract part- and full-time administration staff and teachers are women, and a clear majority of tenured, permanent and senior academic and administrative staff are men. The impression that tenured or permanent employment is a near-exclusive male preserve was potentially damaging to the University of Tokyo’s international reputation and ranking. As labor affairs journalist Chie Matsumoto pointed out to me, this appearance of systemic gender discrimination was a major focus for the union campaign.

Third, the union highlighted the amakudari custom of appointing retired, mostly male senior bureaucrats to administrative positions in national universities, in less competitive application conditions and with greater job security than for many ordinary contract workers. Dan Sasaki, an economist and the chairman of the University of Tokyo Faculty and Staff Union, denounced this system as “the ultimate discriminatory human resources” practice.

Finally, there is the question of how anxiety over employment security affects the research performance of many nontenured scholars facing contract term limits, “cooling off periods” and uncertainty about employment following contract completion. In light of a research productivity and recruitment crisis in the sciences, this has been a special concern for the University of Tokyo as well.

In sum, the University of Tokyo Faculty and Staff Union and the Union of University Part-time Lecturers acted much like my Nova trainer suggested good unions can act. In addition to negotiating for improved job security for their members, they functioned as an early warning system for the University of Tokyo, alerting it to legal and moral deficiencies in its labor practices, which could have exposed it to legal action and to reputation-damaging public censure. On the positive side, the reforms to those labor practices could make the university a more attractive workplace for young foreign scholars.

It’s time to take stock of these reforms at the University of Tokyo, and what they potentially mean for many workers, foreign and Japanese alike, struggling with job insecurity and poor working conditions. The success of the union campaign should help put to rest stereotypes about Japan’s “less-developed” labor laws.

Those laws are robust, with ample protections for union-organizing and collective bargaining which are the gift of a postwar liberal constitutional settlement. Yet it is not enough for those protections just to be there, on paper. In an analysis of the union campaign at the University of Tokyo, union chair Sasaki remarked that if people don’t make claim to their rights, they won’t be able to take possession of them. In saying this he echoed the thinking of another University of Tokyo professor, the great postwar philosopher Masao Maruyama, who warned his fellow citizens 60 years ago not to “doze off over their rights” — but to strive constantly to exercise them.

Employment security should be a fundamental matter for justice, connected intimately both to a sense of dignity and belonging in work, and to the ability to formulate, and financially sustain, a life plan. What the union activism at Japan’s most prestigious university demonstrates — for Japanese and foreign workers alike — is that the rights exist to campaign effectively for it.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University.

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