Editorials

Rengo's daunting challenges

It’s been 30 years since the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) was created in a grand union of public and private sector labor organizations. Rengo is believed to have played key roles in the change of governments that took place twice since its launch in November 1989 — in 1993 and 2009 — but its political influence plummeted after the Democratic Party of Japan’s crushing fall from power in 2012 and the breakup of its successor.

Meanwhile, Rengo’s presence in annual wage negotiations has waned with the protracted period of sluggish growth since the 1990s, and it has failed to expand its membership as fewer workers join labor unions. With labor practices going through radical changes, Rengo needs to keep exploring what roles the nation’s largest umbrella labor organization can play to achieve its purpose — protecting the interests of workers in general.

Rengo was launched in a merger between the left-leaning General Council of Trade Unions of Japan (Sohyo), comprising public sector labor organizations and affiliated with the then-Japan Socialist Party, and the right-of-center Japanese Confederation of Labor (Domei), made up of private sector labor groups that supported the now-defunct Democratic Socialist Party. It set a target of expanding its membership to 10 million workers from the roughly 8 million when it was launched. However, the number fell to as low as 6.65 million in 2007. This spring, membership topped 7 million for the first time in 17 years — but much of the recovery is attributed to an increase in union members with irregular job statuses.

Rengo set a target of getting 30 percent of all employed workers to join labor unions — compared with 26 percent in 1989 — but the ratio declined to as low as 17 percent as of last year. Behind the trend were moves by firms to cut back on hiring regular full-time workers starting in the 1990s and turn more to a cheaper irregular workforce using part-timers, contract workers and temporary staff, who now account for about 40 percent of the nation’s workers.

Rengo came under criticism that it was driven by the interests of regular full-time workers at big companies, and that it did too little too late to address the woes of irregular workers. When large numbers of temporary dispatch workers were axed in the worldwide recession following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, Rengo was slow to respond — reportedly out of concern that supporting the irregular workers might hurt the working conditions of regular full-time workers. In response to such criticism, the following year Rengo began to incorporate demands related to the irregular workforce in its wage negotiations and promote the participation of irregular workers in labor unions. Such efforts, however, remain insufficient.

Most labor unions in Japan are company-based rather than sector-wide, as is more common in North America and Europe. But as many of the nation’s unique labor practices change and people’s ways of work diversify, the ways and roles of labor unions will also be subject to review. In a news conference earlier this month, Rengo President Rikio Kozu emphasized that the organization will seek to beef up cooperation with people with irregular job statuses, foreign workers and freelancers. Rengo needs to pursue activities that promote the interests of all workers — irrespective of union affiliation — and contribute to improving their working conditions.

From its beginning, Rengo has spent a great deal of energy on its political activities. It played key roles in the launch in 1993 of a multiparty coalition government led by Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, which forced the Liberal Democratic Party out of power for the first time since its creation in 1955, and the DPJ-led administrations from 2009 to 2012. However, its political influence dwindled with the fall of the DPJ.

While the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wrestled power back from the DPJ, has called on businesses to raise wages every year in its bid to bust deflation, Rengo has not been able to make much of an impact on annual wage negotiations. The Abe administration has also pursued a policy agenda that might have come from labor circles, such as equal work, equal pay irrespective of job status.

The breakup of the Democratic Party, the successor to the DPJ, ahead of the 2017 general election further eroded the political clout of Rengo, its largest organized supporter. In the Upper House election in July, labor unions under Rengo’s umbrella were split between those supporting the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, and the Democratic Party for the People, the second-largest. Behind the division is the differences in positions among labor unions in various sectors over key policy issues, such as nuclear power. Some of those gaps mirror the divisions among labor unions when Rengo was created. Thirty years on, there remain many hurdles that Rengo must overcome.