In February, the General Union Kindai Branch held collective bargaining session with Kindai University, during which we demanded that teachers be given the option of teaching online if they had medical conditions that put them at increased risk of contracting COVID and/or becoming severely ill.
At the time, Kindai told us that they were still uncertain of their policies for the upcoming semester, and we were alarmed by the suggestion that a medical certificate would not be sufficient and that an interview with one of their administrative staff would be required.
Then began what seemed to be a never ending effort to delay and stonewall the talks and their policy decisions in an attempt (we believe) to discourage teachers from applying for exemptions at all – and to prevent a rush of applications that they feared may eventuate if word got out that some teachers had been granted exemptions several weeks before the semester commenced.
On March 19, the GU submitted applications for exemptions from several teachers. These were then followed by a few more applications over the following week, culminating in the General Union finally submitting a list of seven members whom we requested be allowed to teach online.
We were finally able to pin Kindai down for a negotiation on March 26, only a week before classes were due to start.
They stated that the teachers would have to apply directly to their departments – meaning that the university admin sat on the applications instead of forwarding them to their respective departments on behalf of the applicants, despite the obvious difficulties this could create for teachers and staff if the exemption were granted at the last minute.
At the end of March, the university created a policy pertaining to medical exemptions stating that they required not just the name of a pre-existing condition, but one that also required doctors to state that the condition was not controllable and to provide a concrete estimate for the risk of severe illness.
Simply put, Kindai’s policy was deliberately written to make it difficult (if not impossible) for doctors to meet the requirements as they were set out.
Our members have reported comments from their doctors to the effect that, in some cases, quantifying the risk was simply not possible due to the nature of the condition and/or the fact that the effects of COVID-19 on many conditions are still yet to be established.
One of the doctors said they were asking for a thesis (ronbun) rather than a medical certificate (shindansho).
As the number of COVID cases in Kansai grew rapidly in late March and early April, we argued that it was irresponsible to resume face-to-face classes until the situation was brought under control.
Kindai’s admin admitted to us that they were under huge pressure from the government, including the education ministry, to get back to “business as usual”.
They also refused to budge on our demands for teachers until we made it clear that we would enter into a dispute with Kindai if the exemptions were denied.
After meeting with the members involved and discussing their options, the GU office advised Kindai that our members would prefer to take sick leave/annual leave rather than run the risk of teaching on campus against their doctor’s advice.
On April 6, just one day before classes were due to start, Kindai Management finally agreed to permit all of the seven GU members on our list permission to teach online.
We regard this as a significant victory for the union.
We were still unhappy though that most of our members would be forced to teach face-to-face when an explosion of the pandemic, fueled by new variants of the disease, sent the number of new infections soaring.
We made our view clear that we did not believe it was possible for the university to ensure a safe working environment.
When face-to-face classes did restart on Wednesday the 7th of April, images of crowded classrooms and large crowds of students filling the space between buildings appeared across the web.
This attached the attention of the media and on the following Friday, the university retreated from the original policy which was to have 70% of classes taught face-to-face and announced the cancellation of classes for the following week, with a restart of alternating online and face-to-face classes.
While this is a step in the right direction, with new infections in Osaka passing the 1,000 a day mark (at the time of writing) we believe this is insufficient.
One thing is clear though: workers cannot rely on management to provide a safe workplace.
They need fighting unions like the General Union to defend their interests.