Over the years union members have been asked many questions when talking to their coworkers and friends about the union. In this article we hope to answer some of the more common questions. Please think seriously about what we say. Do not trust everything you hear about us. If you have any questions whatsoever, we will answer them in confidence. We have nothing to hide.
“The union will not compromise in negotiations”
We have said many times that we will compromise. We have offered compromises. The problem is that Nichibei does not accept the concept of collective bargaining, which often involves give-and-take. Vice-president Kuroda once called collective bargaining ‘unfair’. Luckily people like her do not write this country’s laws. Since the Meiji period, for over 100 years, unions and collective bargaining have been a recognised feature of working life in Japan.
“Union members at Nichibei are striking over private problems and dragging other people into their dispute.”
A union dispute with a company over working conditions and pay is not a ‘private problem’, as Nichibei calls it in the leaflet distributed to students. It is a legally proper dispute on an organizational level. We enjoy special protections from the law, including civil and criminal immunities precisely because we are a union, fighting to improve working conditions, not fighting as individuals in some personal vendetta. The Trade Union Law of Japan encourages the practice of union formation and collective bargaining. Noriko Kuroda thinks the laws of Japan are ‘strange’. Well, nobody is forcing her to live here. Every member of our branch believes in what our union is doing. Nobody is being tricked or forced to do anything. Unlike Nichibei, we have no power to order anybody to do anything.
“The company will never change. There’s no point in fighting.”
Ten years ago, Nichibei had no paid holidays as laid down by the Labour Standards Law, no unemployment insurance, no overtime pay for the staff, or pay rises. In one case, a teacher was forced to work 10 hours a day or if he didn’t like it, or 6 days a week instead. Teachers had to come to work early unpaid, or risk a deduction. Teachers had to make their own group lesson materials in their free time. Nichibei got away with unfair and illegal activities of all sorts. People were told they could simply leave if they didn’t like it. Last year the union found out that new staff were being made to work two extra days a month unpaid. We immediately put an end to it. The union, and the union alone, has put an end to all these abuses.
“Why don’t you leave if you don’t like it at Nichibei?
There are always troubles in life, and there is no perfect company or job. You have a choice: to turn your back on problems, or to face them. We have seen working conditions under attack for 10 years at Nichibei. We cannot accept this, and we made a union to keep Nichibei a good school. Why should we leave? We have done nothing wrong. We simply insist that the company negotiates in good faith and treats its employees with some respect and professionalism. If anyone should resign, it is those who were judged guilty of abusing their rights in 3 civil court cases.
“Well, maybe you’re right, but it’s not the Japanese way. Let’s just have a happy school again! Go with the flow!”
Companies want you to think that unions are ‘not the Japanese way’. That’s only natural, because they want to keep their total control over their employees. This is nothing but self-interested propaganda. Japan has one of the most advanced union laws in the world, and a long history of union activity. You cannot have a happy school without a union at Nichibei. Before the union, for several years, we had a miserable school, and employees who felt they had to no recourse against an arbitrary management intent on cutting pay and conditions. Now, non-union members, too, in effect enjoy the protection of the union. The company is so scared of people joining the union that it is forced to treat people with more consideration. Without the union, a very cold wind would blow through Nichibei’s corridors again. Go with the flow? Straight down the pipes.
“Can’t you settle your problems with the company by talking?”
We would love to. Since founding the Nichibei union branch in 1994, we have held collective bargaining about 26 times, along with numerous other discussions. Most recently, we made a serious effort to bring about peace by asking the Labour Commission to mediate a settlement. Nichibei, astonishingly, refused to participate, saying they could not agree to any concessions. Sadly, this company has still not learned how to talk or negotiate. They have never shown the slightest interest in what anyone thinks about improving the company. The law, in its wisdom, understands that some problems cannot be settled by discussion, because some companies are not reasonable. That is why we have the right to strike, a basic internationally-recognised right. With Nichibei, unfortunately, we have no choice but to use it or give up everything. We chose to carry on trying to make a better company, and we will not be deflected from this task.
“Why do you have to involve the students in this?”
We do not want to hurt students, but inevitably, when teachers strike, students are affected. When factory workers strike, production is affected. That’s reality. The true scandal is that Nichibei prefers to pay new part-timers, increase its own costs and carry on paying hefty legal bills to their lawyer in order to avoid giving small concessions to the union. Nichibei also prefers to see students losing lessons because of strikes than even make an effort to talk with us at the Labour Commission to settle the problem.
“When will the strikes end?”
This dispute will end when Nichibei accepts the concept of fair negotiation and makes a reasonable offer to the union. Sadly, Nichibei seems to have decided to dig in and sit it out.
“What can non-union members do to help a settlement?”
If you all joined the union and we stuck together, this dispute would be over tomorrow. Nichibei would have to settle with us. It’s that simple.
“Can we make our own ‘Nichibei Union’ or ‘Staff Union’?”
Of course you can. However, if it is an internal company union, it will have no backup from outside, no expert advice on how to organise, bargain, formulate a constitution, use the Labour Commission, etc. It would probably be nothing more than a discussion group which the company could easily control. In our Eikaiwa industry in Kansai, everybody knows there is only one player: the General Union. We are a force to be reckoned with because we are totally independent of any employer. We have only the workers’ interests at heart.
“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.
“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. At Nichibei, we won 3 court judgements (1999~2000) against Nichibei when they tried to fire the union leader in the company. 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.
“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.