Unions Are Not “Cheap Lawyers For Hire”

Jun 29, 2017

This gives the union a mandate to deal with individual or small group problems without having to fight over the simple right to negotiate.

While this is often helpful, we sometimes get people who wish to simply treat the union like a source of free advice, a public service, or cheap lawyers-for-hire.

This happens less and less, and we work to prevent it by educating people about what a union is and what a union does and how a union operates… but it still happens.

This takes us to the particular case of three Berlitz teachers who were dispatched to a private junior- and senior-high school.


Four Berlitz teachers contacted the union because they hadn’t had a pay increase in four years and wanted our help in negotiating better salaries.

As you can see, this not like the many sudden “consultations to rectify a problem” issues that the General Union often deals with.

Here were a group of employees who wanted to unionize for better conditions at their place of work.

Suffice to say, this was not something that was a “quick fix”; this is something that required time, money, and planning – resources that had to be diverted from other people and their problems.

To make a long story short, however, the General Union was able to successfully win the pay rise that the Berlitz teachers had hoped for.

Two of the members (who had gone the longest without a pay increase) actually ended up with a pay increase of ¥24,000 per month, while the other two got an increase of about ¥10,000 per month.

This pay rise was in additional to massive improvements to their yearly bonus.

As it stands, this was the largest pay increase ever won by the General Union, and was no small undertaking.

We know a lot of union members were proud of this union victory as such wins accumulate the momentum and reputation needed to win future pay increases for other people at other companies.

However, while this story should be about a group of teachers who go on to organise even more of their work mates into the union to win even better working conditions, it unfortunately doesn’t turn out that way…


The first red flag should have been lateness in dues payments and the fact that all four teachers started ignoring emails about signing their dues checkoff permission forms (in which dues are automatically deducted from someone’s salary thanks to a hard-negotiated agreement between the union and the company in question).

Negotiations with Berlitz ended after our victory in October – and membership dues suddenly ended with them.

Well, April (2017) rolled around and we were finally notified by one of the Berlitz teachers that the three would not be paying dues past October, having evidently decided that the union’s “services” ended with the conclusion of negotiations with Berlitz.

In fact, they were no longer interested in the union at all (the fourth guy we mentioned had quit his job and moved to non-language industry work, but did pay his dues up until March when he quit).

They even had the audacity to tell us that the intention had always been to use us the General Union like “cheap lawyers” (their own words).

Naturally, the union immediately cancelled the agreements that had been made with Berlitz, but the company opted not to cancel the pay and bonus increases.

So, in the end, the Berlitz teachers selfishly got what they wanted and justified it by thinking they didn’t really hurt anyone along the way.

Well, here’s the problem with that kind of logic: it’s dead wrong.

Those Berlitz teachers hurt and used every member of the General Union with their actions and attitude.

They wounded every member who has ever walked a picket line, got fired and harangued for their union activity, been on strike, supported their brothers and sisters, and paid their dues diligently.

There is more than one meaning to the word “scab”, and these guys are no better than someone who crosses a picket line.

They weakened us by using our resources.

They weakened us by showing an employer that some union members are weak and can be bought off.

They weakened us by allowing an employer to come to negotiations with the idea that some people might be union members for only as long as the union is convenient to them.

Therefore, are we, as a union, now going to stop people from coming to us with problems?

Are we, as a union, going to put some minimum number of months that you have to be a member for before we help?


We’ll continue doing the good work we’ve always done.

If we stop, then we really did let a bunch of scabs defeat us.