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New chief a compromise by two disputing groups in Rengo

  • October 14, 2021
  • , NIKKEI Business Daily , p. 2
  • JMH Translation

By Mizuno Yuji, senior staff writer specializing in labor law, labor policy, and corporate employment practice


At a biennial convention on Oct. 6, Japanese Trade Union confederation (Rengo) launched a new executive team formed under its freshly appointed president, Yoshino Tomoko. Yoshino’s last-minute appointment reflected the schism that exists between two union groups inside Rengo, one consisting of public-sector labor unions and the other consisting of corporate labor unions.


The dominance of corporate-based labor unions is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, and the tendency in corporate unions to put the firms’ interests ahead of Rengo’s made it even harder for Rengo members to agree on a new president. The first female labor union leader, while appropriately symbolizing the age of diversity, will likely face a difficult future.


Yoshino as a compromise


Yoshino served as the deputy chief of the industry union “JAM,” whose core members are small and medium-size manufacturers. She is known as a strong advocate of gender equality. Her appointment, while meaningful, was a compromise reached after a prolonged quagmire.


A bid for the presidency by the presumably strongest candidate, Aihara Yasunobu from the Confederation of Japan Automobile Workers’ Unions (Jidosha Soren), failed because he was unable to garner support from the group in Rengo that represents private-sector unions.


The discord within Rengo surfaced in September 2020, when the former Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and former Democratic Party for the People joined hands to launch the current Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), and it stipulated achieving a “zero-nuclear” society in the new party platform. Private-sector unions strongly opposed this policy, and some industrial unions, such as utilities, electric-appliance manufacturers, and automobile manufacturers, decided that legislators supported by them should not join the new CDPJ. 


Their opposition to the “zero-nuclear” policy reflects their view that nuclear energy is indispensable for business and the economic operations of the companies. It makes sense for the corporate labor unions to support their companies’ growth because the companies’ business performance directly benefits their employees in the form of better compensation and welfare.


The Rengo leadership at the time, including former Rengo chair Kozu Rikio and Aihara, who was the second in command, worked hard to help build a united front for the opposition parties, but instead of succeeding, their efforts resulted in the private-sector unions’ distancing themselves from the Rengo leadership.


General election deepened polarization within Rengo


The difference in positions over nuclear energy deepened the schism between private-sector and public-sector groups as well. While legislators affiliated with public-sector unions had joined the CDPJ, lawmakers backed by private-sector unions joined the re-established Democratic Party for the People (DPFP).


In addition, the election cooperation between the CDPJ and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) has further exacerbated the discrepancy between public-sector unions and their private-sector counterparts, hindering a smooth selection process for the new president.


The government-based and corporate-based unions have had a strained relationship since Rengo was organized in 1989 from different labor union federations, including one representing public-sector unions (Sohyo) and another representing private-sector unions (Domei). They differed in their positions over national security and nuclear energy, and it took a couple of years before the two sides reached an agreement to recognize the role of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty and to accept nuclear energy on certain conditions such as ensuring safety.


Yamagiwa Akira, the first president of Rengo, likened the labor organization at the time of its launch to an airplane equipped with a jet engine and a propeller engine. The awkward flight continues to this day. (Abridged)


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