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Japan Labor Unions
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
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    Japan's 74,500 trade unions were represented by four main labor federations in the mid-1980s: the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan (Nihon Rodo Kumiai Sohyogikai, commonly known as Sohyo), with 4.4 million members--a substantial percentage representing public sector employees; the Japan Confederation of Labor (Zen Nihon Rodo Sodomei, commonly known as Domei), with 2.2 million members; the Federation of Independent Labor Unions (Churitsu Roren), with 1.6 million members; and the National Federation of Industrial Organizations (Shinsanbetsu), with only 61,000 members. In 1987 Domei and Churitsu Roren were dissolved and amalgamated into the newly established National Federation of Private Sector Unions (Rengo); and in 1990 Sohyo affiliates merged with Rengo . Local labor unions and work unit unions, rather than the federations, conducted the major bargaining. Unit unions often banded together for wage negotiations, but federations did not control their policies or actions. Federations also engaged in political and public relations activities (see Interest Groups , ch. 6).

    The rate of labor union membership, which was 35.4 percent in 1970, had declined considerably by the end of the 1980s. The continuing long-term reduction in union membership was caused by several factors, including the restructuring of Japanese industry away from heavy industries. Many people entering the work force in the 1980s joined smaller companies in the tertiary sector, where there was a general disinclination toward joining labor organizations.

    The relationship between the typical labor union and the company is unusually close. Both white- and blue-collar workers join the union automatically in most major companies. Temporary and subcontracting workers are excluded, and managers with the rank of section manager and above are considered part of management. In most corporations, however, many of the managerial staff are former union members. In general, Japanese unions are sensitive to the economic health of the company, and company management usually brief the union membership on the state of corporate affairs.

    Any regular employee below the rank of section chief is eligible to become a union officer. Management, however, often pressures the workers to select favored employees. Officers usually maintain their seniority and tenure while working exclusively on union activities and while being paid from the union's accounts, and union offices are often located at the factory site. Many union officers go on to higher positions within the corporation if they are particularly effective (or troublesome), but few become active in organized labor activities at the national level.

    During prosperous times, the spring labor offensives are highly ritualized affairs, with banners, sloganeering, and dances aimed more at being a show of force than a crippling job action. Meanwhile, serious discussions take place between the union officers and corporate managers to determine pay and benefit adjustments. If the economy turns sour, or if management tries to reduce the number of permanent employees, however, disruptive strikes often occur. The number of working days lost to labor disputes peaked in the economic turmoil of 1974 and 1975 at around 9 million workdays in the two-year period. In 1979, however, there were fewer than 1 million days lost. Since 1981 the average number of days lost per worker each year to disputes was just over 9 percent of the number lost in the United States. After 1975, when the economy entered a period of slower growth, annual wage increases moderated and labor relations were conciliatory. During the 1980s, workers received pay hikes that on average closely reflected the real growth of GNP for the preceding year. In 1989, for example, workers received an average 5.1 percent pay hike, while GNP growth had averaged 5 percent between 1987 and 1989. The moderate trend continued in the early 1990s as the country's national labor federations were reorganizing themselves.

    Data as of January 1994

    NOTE: The information regarding Japan on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Japan Labor Unions information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Japan Labor Unions should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.

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Revised 10-Nov-04
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