Everything you ever wanted to know about the union but were afraid to ask!
Over the years union members have been asked many questions when talking to their coworkers and friends about the union. Most of the questions are valid, but they're often based on incorrect assumptions or myths about labour unions. In this article we hope to answer some of the more common questions.
Q: What will the union negotiate for with my company?
It is for the employees to decide what to negotiate for. After declaring a branch you and your coworkers will discuss which issues are important to everyone in the branch. These issues will form the basis for your demands to the employer. Experienced union activists can provide assistance with any technical issues related to drafting or negotiating the demands.
Q: Who runs the union?
The General Union is a democratic organization run by the members. We hold an Annual General Meeting open to all members to elect our Executive Officers. The Executive Officers hold an Executive Committee Meeting once a month and participate in the day to day running of the union. The Executive Committee meetings are also open to all members. Groups of union members working at the same company can form a branch. Each branch of the General Union also has officers which are elected by the branch members. Branch officers work in consultation with the General Union's Executive Committee. The union is run by its members.
Q: Can I be fired for joining the union?
Japanese Labour Law prohibits employers from discriminating against people in any way because of their union activity. If an employer does harass or discriminate against a union member, the union can file an 'Unfair Labour Practices' case with the Labour Commission.
However, the best safeguard against the employer harassing anyone is for everyone to stick together. Without a union, management has a free hand to treat people as it pleases. But with a union everyone has the protection of the law and their coworkers.
In the ten years since the General Union was formed only very few union members have been fired/not renewed for union activity and the union has won all the cases. On the other hand, we regularly receive calls from nonunion members seeking advice on what to do about dismissals and non-renewals. There is no guarantee that you will not be fired, but if you are, you are much better off with a union than you are without one.
Q: My employer is spreading the rumour that we could lose benefits that we now have. Is this true?
Our experience so far is that when employees join together to form a union that they are able to maintain existing benefits and in many cases have won significant improvements. In theory the union might agree to grant concessions to aid an ailing company, but this would come only as a last resort after the company had opened its books and only with the agreement of the members.
Q: Won't it cost the employer a lot of money if the union comes in?
It's natural for employees to be concerned about the financial health of companies and schools where they work. After all, if the company goes out of business, it can't pay anyone's wages or salaries. On the other hand, the assumption that if the company is doing well the employees will be the beneficiaries is not necessarily the case. A profitable company could become even more profitable by laying off employees or paying less in wages and benefits or by paying the same salaries but increasing the working hours. Even having an exact profit figure doesn't give the full picture, as companies can spend money on a lot of things besides employees; e.g. financing expansion and opening new schools, moving into new businesses, management salaries, and expensive advertising campaigns. In the last six years, we have seen English Conversation Schools that have purchased company airplanes, yachts, a Swiss Chalet, and in one case an island in the Philippines. In the final analysis, the only way to ensure economic justice for employees is by building strong unions.
Q: My employer has been saying that the union is corrupt. Is this true?
The union is you and other people like you. The employer would like you to think that unions are corrupt. The truth is that the General Union is a decent, honest, organization dedicated to improving the lives of working people.
Q: I only plan on staying in Japan for a short time. Why should I join the union?
Most people don't initially intend to stay for a long time but for one reason or another many stay for much longer than the year or so for which they planned. Foreign workers of many nationalities and occupations now make up a significant part of Japan's work force. Improvements in one sector set an example and give hope to workers in other fields. Even if you are here for a relatively short time, your friends in other companies and your coworkers may be here long after you leave. Joining the union will help them now and in the future.
Q: My employer says that Japanese people don't like unions and that joining a union isn't the Japanese way.
The definition of the Japanese way depends on who you talk to, and is sometimes based on fundamentally self- interested assumptions. Every year thousands of Japanese people go on strike and attend rallies or demonstrations. In Japan there are 10 million people in labour unions. Zen Rokyo, the labour federation to which the General Union belongs, has 3 hundred thousand members. The General Union is a Japanese union formed in accordance with Japanese law and jointly led by Japanese and non-Japanese members.
Q: My employer is implying the company would close if the union came in.
Teachers at Bilingual and Atty (two large English Schools that closed in 1994) were not unionized before both companies started having major financial difficulties. Once the schools had gone bankrupt the only reason that the employees were able to collect back wages was because of the intervention of the union.
Companies do not go out of business because they have a union, or because the workers are treated fairly. Companies close because of market conditions or poor management. The General Union has not forced any company into bankruptcy. This is a scare tactic that employers use to keep people from gaining a voice on the job. With fair wages, working conditions, and a voice on the job, teachers stay longer and become better and more experienced teachers.
Q: Management says the union is just after our dues money. Why should we pay money to the union?
Your dues pay for office expenses. Union activists are motivated by a sense that what they are doing is right, and most of them are completely unpaid. Nobody is getting rich off union dues. Your dues are spent promoting your rights and working conditions. Employers also pay dues to organizations. Employers in Japan have their own 'unions', such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Japan Employers' Association. They pay for representation; why shouldn't you?
Q: Management says there will be a strike if we organize.
Management talks a lot about strikes during an organizing drive. Strikes are uncommon and most problems are solved without striking. The only way there can be a strike is if the employees in your branch vote for a strike. Unions have a lot of other tactics that can put pressure on management to reach a fair agreement. For example, unions use negotiations, leafletings, rallies, and community support, rather than having to always resort to striking.
Q: How do we go about getting a union here?
You are welcome to join the union as an individual, but the greater the number of union members in your workplace, the more we can accomplish. Where there is already a General Union branch at your company or school, we will put you in contact with co-workers already in the union. If there is no union branch where you work, the General Union has many experienced organizers who can help you and your co-workers with the mechanics of forming a branch.