On April 23rd, picket lines were formed at three different locations outside of ECC offices, in Osaka, Nagoya, and Tokyo. The General Union sent a clear message of sincerity and solidarity to all that would hear their demands for better conditions and respect.
Among those on strike was Nathan Hillyer, Co-Chair of the ECC Branch of the General Union. These are his words, from his perspective, about the build up to the strike, the day of the action itself, and what the union means to him and to everyone involved.
On the night before the strike, I felt a weight in my gut. This heavy feeling was composed of the futility of all the past face-to-face negotiations that we’d sat through, wondering if people are nothing more than figures on sheets of paper to these executives.
We carried the worries of many members with us, always trying to strike a balance between action and time, each concern tied to an individual face and voice.
The union’s group conscience is still made of individuals at work and home. Those of us on the executive committee, helping to make decisions for many, need to remember that we represent a real person, with real feelings and problems like any of us.
As we approached the day of action, the weeks that we had spent building a consensus were running through my head.
Wednesday afternoon brought news from a meeting in Tokyo: the ECC company president had made positive comments about our demands, and the suggestion had been made to postpone the strike.
However, such news came in the wake of creating a list of people absolutely committed to strike action, meaning a meeting of our executive committee would be required to decide if we should go ahead with the strike or not.
It seemed utterly absurd – after months of attempting to negotiate and making our demands clear, our reply was little more than “positive” communication, with no tangible offer of substance attached.
The result of final vote was conclusive: No offer? No numbers? No deal.
The General Union would proceed with the strike, and more than 70 names were submitted for a strike that would take place within 48 hours.
On Thursday morning, we’d wondered about the situation in Tokyo in the wake of them receiving news from the President of ECC.
However, thanks to some quick work, I was informed that another ECC Branch Co-Chair had been on contact with the people in Tokyo and brought them up to speed on our plan of action, securing their support in the process, and easing the concern I had that we might be going into the strike without reading the same plan of battle.
Even so, every little moment was a tight-rope balance of nerves.
At work, it became obvious from a conversation with my school director that our list of strikers and the exact date reported had not made any difference to the management – they still had not told the schools, and it seemed that our intent had done little to dent their shroud of apathy.
My worry was not without precedent: In the last strike at ECC, no one from the company had told the schools about the union’s intent until just before things happened.
Thus, when the strikes occurred, ECC management used the opportunity to send faxes with discouraging messages about the union’s action, painting ECC as the innocent party in the process – a manipulation of events that borders on being unlawful.
This time, we decided that things would be different.
With approval from the Chair of the General Union, we took it upon ourselves to get ahead of the company and send announcements to the schools ourselves. In it, we made it clear that we were not against the staff or students, and wanted to work – we stressed that it was the company’s unwillingness to treat us with respect that was the cause of the strike, and not an action that was being taken lightly…
On Friday, I was up early and at the union office, entering every fax number for more than one-hundred schools in Kinki, Chubu, and Okayama. The faxes were sent before most of the schools had even unlocked their doors.
It seemed like we were ready…
Just after 3pm, it seemed like the action had finally had an effect: the company had made an offer.
However, the offer was conditional to us postponing the strike, so an executive decision was again required to decide our course of action.
Executive committee members were being pulled out of their lessons, sometimes unwillingly by ECC company staff, and being sent to the union office with comments such as, “don’t clock out, and come back when you are finished.”
We all gathered at the union office to consider the offer…
To put it simply, the offer was terrible.
The question now was not “should we accept the offer or not?”, but rather “what can we do with this offer?”
Was it worth using the offer to seek a better deal with the company, using it as a starting point in an attempt to a better deal? Or would even entertaining the idea of returning to the negotiating table after such a paltry overture be as much of a waste of time as it was an insult to our union’s members?
Would even humouring the company, even as a means to an end, result in people feeling that their time and effort was being wasted?
We debated this point, and a consensus became clear: the company’s offer was viewed as little more than a token effort designed to appease the General Union with as little effort on the company’s part as possible, and we wouldn’t stand for it.
The strike would continue as planned.
The next day, we took action.
We marched; we stood together; we chanted; we struck!
Meanwhile, back at the union office, the executive committee had decided to tell the membership about the offer.
The room was already alive with questions and discussion. We were about to defend why we rejected the offer, but we had not anticipated the note that was waiting for us from the ECC President’s staff.
“You struck, so all negotiations are over.”
Apart from the message being illegal, it was another piece of discouraging news to give.
I had feared that the news from the company would cause panic within the proverbial ranks; that the company’s message of defiance would make people think that they were wasting their time fighting against a monster that had neither care nor concern for their actions.
I had expected disappointment and a feeling of futility. Instead, the news was received with grit and determination. So what if the company was being defiant? The ECC Branch of the General Union could be defiant, too.
At this point, ECC’s attitude towards its employees – people who wanted nothing more than to be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve as the lifeblood of the company – was neither surprising nor unexpected.
Something had to give, and it wouldn’t be the union.
We were committed to our solidarity – and we still are.
Regardless of what I may see in the future, I will forever remember April 23rd as one of the most inspiring moments in my life.
I am sincerely appreciative to the union members for standing tall in the face of such adversity.
I am proud of you all.
– Nathan Hillyer; General Union ECC Branch Co-Chair