Japanese labour unions feel pain of new era
Aljazeera -- Feb 19

The "spring offensive" used to strike fear into the hearts of Japan's industrial managers. Labour union demands for wage increases were boldly submitted. To underline their steely determination, workers walked off the job in the spring.

Trains were halted, leaving millions of commuters stranded and angry. The world watched to see how many days or weeks it would take Japanese business leaders to fold and to agree to wage hikes large enough to satisfy the labour union negotiators.

But that was the character of Japan from the 1950s to '70s - the high-growth era in which this East Asian nation rose from the ashes of a bitter wartime defeat to eventually reach the heady status of the number-two economic power in the world.

Even before that earlier period ended, shunto, the Japanese term for "spring offensive", had become more of a ritual than anything else, and union militancy faded perceptibly as the years went by. Today it is practically unknown.

"In the 1970s, there were almost 6,000 strikes on an average year, but last year there were only 68," Motoaki Nakaoka, general secretary of the National Trade Union Council (Zenrokyo), points out. "This is an era in which even the labour leaders don't know what it is like to prevail in a strike."

It is not only Japanese labour activism whose effectiveness is in question, but the very existence of Japanese labour unions themselves. According to a comprehensive survey carried out by the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, the proportion of Japanese workers who are members of labour unions has fallen to 17.9 percent. At its peak in the early postwar years, that figure was above 55 percent.

Many factors contributed to this steady decline in the power of labour organisation in Japan, and it's a story familiar to many developed nations.

For one thing, Japan's conservative governments became less tolerant of labour activism and large-scale strikes as the years went by. Socialist and communist parties with which labour unions were affiliated either weakened substantially at the polls, or else disappeared altogether.

News source: Aljazeera

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