Japanese trade unions “are built around men”. Can a leader change that?

TOKYO — Women have never found a welcoming home in Japanese unions. Sexism is entrenched. Issues such as wage discrimination and sexual harassment at work are often overlooked. Many women, speechless, have abandoned the movement.

So when Japan’s largest trade union association, known as Rengo, appointed its first female leader last October, excitement was tempered by a heavy dose of skepticism.

The new leader, Tomoko Yoshino, knows this sentiment well: after decades in the labor movement, she understands the failings of Japanese unions as well as anyone. But she is convinced that she can make her appointment a powerful tool for reform.

“The fact that I want to integrate gender equality into all of Rengo’s activities has attracted a lot of attention,” she said in an interview, adding that it has put pressure on the group’s member organizations to they “demonstrate real results”.

Proving that unions can be strong allies of working women is essential for the future of Japan’s once-powerful labor movement, which has largely failed to attract women even as their numbers have rapidly increased into the labor force in Japan. country.

To recruit female workers, unions will need to fight for measures that help women manage both their work and the heavy expectations they face outside of work, including standing up for women who face sexual harassment and discrimination and pushing companies to provide more help with childcare.

Japan has one of the world’s worst records for gender equality, ranking 120 out of 156 countries in a World Economic Forum ranking, even after years of government promises to help women ‘shine’ .

The country’s unions reflect this imbalance, said Keiko Tani, who helps run a nonprofit dedicated to helping women with work-related issues.

She said women often needed help, for example, after being punished for taking maternity leave. But most unions, she said, still focus on old models of employment that assume a traditional family structure in which the husband works “around the clock and leaves household chores, child-rearing and other things concerning his personal life to his wife, a professional”. household.”

In the 1990s, Ms. Tani and her friends were so fed up with sexism in Japanese unions that they quit and started their own. She said that while she applauded Ms. Yoshino’s success in reform, a lifetime of disappointment in the labor movement taught her not to hope.

“Unions are built around men,” she said. “It will be difficult for any leader to break that mold and make new changes.”

Midori Ito, a long-time union activist, said gender discrimination in unions had been so bad for so long that many women had “abandoned them completely”.

She quit the labor movement years ago due to frustration with its lack of action on the issues facing Japanese women workers. “They don’t listen to us,” she said.

The problems with Japanese unions do not end with their treatment of women. As interest in worker groups has grown in the United States in recent years, they have become increasingly marginalized and irrelevant to many Japanese workers, said Kazunari Honda, professor of human resource management at the Mukogawa Women’s University which studies gender in the labor movement.

It has not always been so. From the end of World War II to the 1970s, unions accounted for more than 30% of Japanese workers.

But that number began to dwindle when the energy crisis of the 1970s forced companies to downsize. When economic growth stalled in the 1990s, membership fell further. Workers, fearing layoffs, have become more conservative in their demands, trading wage gains and working conditions for job stability. Strikes, once a common tactic, have largely disappeared.

Today, unions represent only 17% of the Japanese workforce, making it difficult for them to effect meaningful change.

As the influence of unions has waned, another force in Japan’s economy has grown: non-regular workers, who do not fit the country’s traditional model of lifetime jobs.

Since the 1980s, the number of non-regular workers in Japan has more than doubled, from 16% to almost 37%, or some 20.6 million workers, in 2021. Almost half are women, who are become disproportionately represented among non-regular employees. the percentage of working women under the age of 65 has increased by nearly 20% in recent decades.

Unions have long been reluctant to include non-regular workers because organizations focus on protecting the prerogatives of their “regular” counterparts: better benefits and higher wages. Speaking on behalf of their most indispensable colleagues, according to logic, would gain them little and jeopardize their own friendly relationship with management.

This relationship is an unusual feature of Japanese labor organizations. Most groups are organized around a specific company, rather than an industry or trade, as in the United States. And they tend to work closely with companies to ensure job stability, rather than trying to force change through dramatic actions like strikes.

For temporary workers, many of whom change employers frequently, there is little incentive to engage in an organized group around a workplace they may soon be leaving.

Encouraging these workers to organise, Ms Yoshino said, will compel Rengo – which is known as the Japanese Trade Union Confederation in English and has around seven million members – to invest more in strengthening industry-based unions, and not on business.

In particular, she thinks the group should focus on workplaces – such as department stores and supermarkets – which employ large numbers of non-regular female workers.

Ms Yoshino, 56, who started working at a sewing machine manufacturer after high school, said she didn’t think much about gender discrimination until 1985 when her employer eliminated her pay gap in response to the passage of Japan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Law. The big pay rise she received opened her eyes to the backwardness of women, she said.

As a regular employee, she was automatically added to the manufacturer’s union. Her career as an activist began with a small victory: persuading the union to demand that the company pay for the ribbons and sashes that were an integral part of women’s uniforms. In 1988, she became the first woman on the company’s 20-member union executive committee.

Over the next few years, as she focused on gender equality, she rose through the ranks of the union, eventually landing at Rengo’s regional office in Tokyo and then at the group’s headquarters, where she was tasked with a committee on women’s issues.

When Ms. Yoshino was offered the top job at Rengo, she seriously considered turning it down, she said. The organization, a confederation of thousands of unions representing Japan’s largest and most successful companies, is inherently conservative and resistant to change. But she ultimately decided that turning down the opportunity would be a betrayal to the many women who had helped her in her own career.

Among those who know her best, Ms. Yoshino has a reputation as an outspoken fighter who gets things done. While most union officials tend to dither, “for better or for worse, she speaks her mind,” said Chiaki Saito, who heads Rengo’s Tokyo branch.

“Japanese newspapers say she’s a puppet, but that makes me laugh,” she added. “If anyone thinks they can control her, they should try.”

Ms Yoshino’s first major test at the helm of Rengo will come this spring as Japanese unions prepare for their annual pay talks, dubbed “shunto” or “spring offensive”.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has urged employers to raise wages by 3% as part of his promise for a “new capitalism” that would reduce the country’s growing inequality. The goal is unrealistic, but all eyes will be on Ms. Yoshino regardless.

It may already have distanced itself from one of its greatest potential allies: the Japanese Communist Party, a small political group but a powerful force in the labor movement. Ms. Yoshino has drawn attention for her political views, particularly her anti-communist rhetoric.

The group’s own union, Zenroren, is the second largest in Japan. It is also led by a woman, Masako Obata, who was appointed in 2020, essentially putting the two women in the best position to change Japan’s labor movement at loggerheads.

The groups may not be able to overcome their differences, but even so, having two women leading Japan’s two strongest unions in a fight for gender equality is sure to yield results, said Ms. Obata.

“I think we will be a powerful force to change the unchanging politics of this country,” she said.

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