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Japan’s ‘Lifetime’
Job Security Under Attack

How Zenroren, UE's Japanese Sister Union
Is Taking on Job Losses and Corporate Restructuring


Demonstration organized by Zenroren in front of the Nissan headquarters in downtown Tokyo
Demonstration organized by Zenroren in front of the Nissan headquarters in downtown Tokyo. UE’s Alexander is in the center.

Japan’s "lifetime" job security system is under attack — and Zenroren, UE’s sister union, is taking a leading role in the fight against corporate restructuring.

On Oct. 19, Nissan announced that three plants would be closed and 21,000 jobs eliminated. The announcement was made by Carlo Ghosn, of Renault, which had taken over Japan’s second largest car maker last June. On Oct. 27, Mitsubishi Motors Corp. announced plans to reduce its workforce by 12,400, and a few days later Mitsubishi Heavy Industries announced cuts of an additional 7,000 workers.

These and other massive cuts by other Japanese corporations are a response to the Industrial Recovery law. Enacted by the Japanese Diet (the national legislature) during its previous session, the law provides companies with incentives to restructure through loans and tax breaks. In order to qualify, beginning in October 1999, companies had to submit plans to the government showing cutbacks in employment and productive equipment designed to deal with overcapacity and lack of competitiveness.

(Ironically, the law also provides payments to companies which hire workers — a response to the political charge that the law encouraged discharges. However, newspaper reports failed to reveal any major hiring plans.)

This is only the latest attack on a system which, for years, has accorded the vast majority of workers at large corporations job security for life. It is important to note that this setup was maintained at the expense of temporary workers whose hiring and firing tempered the fluctuations in demand for production. But under Japanese law even those workers had certain rights, including the right to an employment contract.


But Japanese labor laws have recently been amended to give management greater flexibility.

For example, the law now permits the hiring of workers through temp agencies in a far greater range of jobs. Similarly, protections accorded women are being removed, to the distress of the more progressive labor and women’s organizations which fear greater exploitation of women rather than greater equality.

Both workers and labor lawyers spoke of trends to hire short term or temporary workers rather than permanent workers, part-time rather than full-time workers, and of increased outsourcing. Perhaps most frightening to Japanese workers is the rapid collapse of seniority-based pay scales. In the past, workers were accustomed to work less hard as they got older and to receive better pay. Now, older workers are often the primary targets of downsizing, forced into early retirement by pressure from management or faced with the option of retiring or moving to a job far from their families and homes.

Suicides have increased 71 percent since last year, we were told.

Job loss hit the financial sector when the Japanese economic bubble burst. We saw this up close when we joined workers from the Nakadachi Securities Company in one of their continuous protests outside the Osaka stock exchange. A stock exchange subcontractor, the company had been shut down last May when the stock exchange withdrew work. Of the 142 workers who were fired, about one third have filed suit with the Osaka District Labor Board demanding that the company rehire them and negotiate with the union. As an added incentive, the workers are occupying the company’s offices. Only half of these workers were union members before their company closed; now they are committed activists.


The workers we met with are members of unions affiliated with the National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren), formed some ten years ago as a militant alternative to company trade unionism. Zenroren now represents some 1.5 million members in affiliates throughout Japan. The difference in perspective is striking. Due to a merger, Zenroren represents approximately 45 of the many thousands of Nissan workers. Yet it was Zenroren which launched a public protest to the announcement that 21,000 jobs were to be lost; there was a deafening silence from the auto workers’ union and its federation, Rengo.

On the opening day of the new Diet session, Zenroren organized a protest march which included some 300 workers from various unions, together with representatives from organizations of women, farmers and others. With brightly colored banners and chants, we marched from a nearby park to the area of the Diet.

A rally outside Nissan’s headquarters in Tokyo gave me the opportunity to speak to a member of the Nissan local’s executive board on behalf of the Frente Autentico del Trabajo (FAT). The FAT has organized one of Nissan’s subcontractors in Mexico. The company fired some 200 workers and threatened the labor board with withdrawing investment, so that the board has refused to do anything for more than a year. In a letter to Zenroren, the FAT asked if there was anything the Japanese union could do to help force the company to comply with the law.

The Nissan worker said that although the situation their union was facing was grim (his plant is among those slated to close), he had great sympathy for the workers in Mexico and believed strongly in international solidarity. The union would do what it could!


The same broad vision is evident in Zenroren’s work in fighting restructuring. Zenroren unions frame plant-closing struggles in terms of the injury to the entire community, and attempt to involve all parts of the community and local government. They also make a point of speaking to all of the workers in the plant, their members, members of another union, or non-union (Japan has a system where more than one union may represent workers within the same bargaining unit), to try to convince them to work in a united manner.

They have established committees of unemployed workers which they call "job hunters’ networks," to assist workers in finding jobs, to bring people together to pursue hobbies and to fight for their rights. For example, together with students and teachers’ unions they seek to ensure that there will be jobs for high school graduates. They also fight to ensure that the local governments make effective use of the money which is provided by the federal government for measures related to the unemployed, by surveying affected workers and making proposals based on the information they obtain. And Zenroren itself is busy putting the finishing touches on legislation designed to protect workers from restructuring.

In a discussion following the National Conference on Job Security and Against Restructuring and Unemployment, Kanemichi Kumagai, a vice president and former general secretary of Zenroren observed: "All of the thirty-five people who spoke about restructuring also spoke of struggle. Although we do not always win, among the most important lessons we can draw from the successful struggles is that they involve the unity of all workers."

(Robin Alexander, UE director of international labor affairs, traveled to Japan last fall as part of a four-person delegation from the National Lawyers Guild. Invited by several progressive Japanese lawyers’ associations, the Americans participated in seminars in several Japanese cities discussing the impact of globalization on employment and labor rights, criminal justice, and the foreign policy and increased use of military force by the United States and NATO. She also spent several days with Zenroren, and was a major speaker at Zenroren’s National Conference on Job Security and Against Restructuring and Unemployment.)

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