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Andrew Glyn

Japan: Reclaiming the Unions

(January 1981)

From Militant, No. 536, 23 January 1981, p. 11.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In Militant 16 January we carried a report of the hellish conditions endured by workers at the Nissan [Datsun] plants in Japan and the blatant divide and rule tactics of management.

Undoubtedly many readers will ask where is the union? Unfortunately for a long period now it has been firmly in the pockets of the company.

Up to 1953 Nissan workers had one of the most militant unions in Japan with a high degree of control over the shop floor. In December 1952, shortly after rescue from near bankruptcy by US orders during the Korean war, Nissan concluded a technical tie-up agreement with Austins to assemble knock down kits.

In order to regain control of the shop floor management provoked a strike, and after a 100 day struggle, succeeded in breaking the union and replacing it with the Nissan Workers Union which co-operates totally with the company.

The union is virtually an extension of Nissan’s industrial relations department; there is a well trodden career structure involving moving from an official position in the union to a higher position in the IR department, and sometimes back to the union!

In annual bargaining, there is full consultation between union and management before the claim is submitted. In the years 1970–74 the union obtained from the company 100% of its claim each year!

The economic crisis made it necessary for the union to go through the motions of submitting a real claim and then negotiating a compromise, but even this hardly changes the reality of the situation.

The union’s charter prescribes that voting should be direct and secret. The percentage of voters who cast votes varies from 99.72% to 99.99%. But something is fishy; the percentage of votes gained by elected officers is between 99.58% and 100%!

The reason is that votes are cast under strict surveillance. One worker, quoted in an article by Kiyoshi Yamamoto of the Tokyo University Institute of Social Science, says:

“When we vote, we are asked to gather round the supervisor’s desk in a group of several at a time, and write out our voting slips right on the spot, on the desk in front of everybody. The desk is an ordinary office desk of about one meter in width.

“And standing beside the desk are the election administrators, I mean the assistant manager and the shop steward, who watch closely to see if we write down the right name.”

Another worker at the head office of the company explains:

“If blank votes or invalid votes are found, the shop steward is forced to submit a written apology to the top union leaders. That is why he keeps an eye on how we fill in the voting slips. He even fills out ballots for new employees, saying that they miswrote the characters or that they may not know who the candidates are.”

The workers are forced to accept this rotten system by an ingenious system of sticks and carrots. Firstly two-thirds or more of the wage is not basic pay but a “special allowance” manipulated by the company to the advantage of “loyal workers”.

The few remaining members of the original ‘first union’ are discriminated against in a host of ways, wages, promotion etc. (a later article will show how this operates in another Japanese firm, Japan Airlines).

The union actually intervenes over the question of promotion, urging priority be given to “one’s record of union activities” and “one’s standing in the union hierarchy.” Ultimately exclusion from the union can mean loss of job (with this kind of union the “closed shop” would be most acceptable to Mrs Thatcher!).

Until the early seventies the control exerted by the unions was cemented by the very rapid increases in living standards which the boom in Japan brought. Between 1955 and 1979 consumption per head rose an estimated 368% in Japan (six times the increase achieved by British workers).

Since 1974 of course, increases have been much less, 1 or 2% a year. In the last year or so there have been a couple of cases of groups of Communist Party members in big firms winning re-instatement to the union (and therefore the company) after being dismissed for insisting on their democratic rights (ironically not concerned with union affairs themselves but with the right to campaign for CP candidates in parliamentary elections).

This is only the first whisperings of what will have to be an enormous struggle by Japanese workers to rid themselves of the exceptionally powerful system of labour control which is exercised over them and to reclaim the unions as their own fighting institutions.

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