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 is the General Union?

The General Union is open to all workers regardless of nationality or employment status. We are NOT a foreign workers union, but a union that represents members from many countries including Japan. The bulk of our union members work in language schools; as Assistant Language Teachers at public boards of education; in private and international elementary, junior, and senior high schools; and at universities.

But the General Union also has members now and in the past who work in factories, construction, transport, finance, IT, and many other industries. We are a “general” union open to all. If we can’t help you, we can definitely put you in touch with a union that can.

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 staff and union activists can assist with any technical issues related to drafting or negotiating the demands.

We usually start by making sure that you first have all your legal rights. You might find this odd that you would need a union to win rights that are legally required, but this is our experience. If you work in a language school or even a university, rights like enrolment in public health and pension insurance, unemployment insurance, and paid holidays were probably won by the General Union before you even arrived in Japan.

Outside of demanding that employers follow all relevant labour laws, members are urged to think of demands that will improve their lives at work. This could be things like pay and special paid leave, or even smaller things like bigger desks and more locker space.

Remember, the law only spells out the minimums. Just because your employer follows the laws does not mean you have nothing to negotiate about. For example, would you be happy with 1000 yen per hour? Of course not, but that is an approximation of the actual minimum wage (varies by prefecture). We should be shooting to win things that improve all our lives.

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 together with the union’s secretariat which is made up of titled officers (chair, vice chairs, general secretary, and treasurer) and meets once a week. The Executive Committee meetings are also open to all members. Groups of union members working at the same employer 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.

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.

The Trade Union Law clearly outlines 4 main unfair labour practices which employers are forbidden from.

  1. To treat union members in a disadvantageous manner.
  2. To refuse to negotiate with the union or to negotiate in bad faith.
  3. To control or interfere in the management and activity of a union.
  4. To discharge or otherwise treat in a disadvantageous manner a worker for having filed a motion 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.

Since the General Union was formed in 1991 very few union members have been fired/not renewed for union activity. On the other hand, we regularly receive calls from non-union members seeking advice on what to do about dismissals and non-renewals. There is no guarantee that you will not be fired or non-renewed, but if you are, you are much better off with a union than you are without one.

Q: My employer is spreading the rumor 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 win significant improvements. In theory the union might agree to grant concessions to aid an ailing employer, but this would come only as a last resort after management had opened its books, and only with the agreement of the members.

Q: My employer has been saying that the union is corrupt. Is this true?

Most employers are not so hostile as to say things like this, but in our history, there have been employers who have said that we are an organized crime ring or even affiliated to the red army. The truth is that union is you and other people like you. Some employers would like you to think that the General Union is corrupt, but the General Union is a decent, honest, organization which is democratically run and 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 as well as making sure your rights are protected.

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.

While the Japanese labour movement has been beaten down over the years, there are still 10 million workers in unions. The General Union is part of a fighting trade union tradition in Japan and is allied with workers all over the country in both our parent union, National Union of General Workers (NUGW), and our federation, the National Trade Union Council (ZenRokyo).

Our 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 NOVA and GEOS (two large English Schools that closed in the 2000s) had only minimal union presence 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. Good employers don’t go bankrupt because of unions winning fair working conditions, they go bankrupt due to poor market conditions or bad management decisions that unions often to have to fight against for everyone’s benefit.

Q: Management says the union is just after our dues money. Why should we pay money to the union?

Nobody is getting rich off union dues. Your dues are spent promoting your rights and working conditions. Union dues are used to pay elected staff (but most union activists are not paid), and for the running of the office and union activities. General Union policy is that members are paid the average wage of members (and currently, we’re not even paying that much).

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.

Strikes are uncommon and most problems are solved without striking. The only way there can be a strike is if the employees in your union 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, leafleting, rallies, and community support, rather than having to always resort to striking, but rest assured, if there is a strike, you will have your say in the matter through democratically run meetings and votes.

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 employer, 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 and starting negotiations with your employer.