Vol.38-No.5 May 1,1999
1.0 Union Organization and Enterprise-based Labor Unions
To understand the Japanese labor union movement, it is useful to know the origins of its leaders, their attributes, and the directions in which they are headed.
The nation's unionization rate has steadily dropped since 1976. The rate first dropped below 30 percent in 1983, and by 1998 stood at 22.4 percent. Changes in industrial structure and employees' attitudes toward labor unions are often cited as causes of the declining unionization rate in Japan.* The most significant cause of the nation's falling unionization rate, however, is the inadequate unionization of small enterprises and newly-established enterprises, a failure which reflects the organizational structure of the nation's labor unions.
About 70,000 labor unions in Japan organize 12 million workers. Over 90 percent of the unions are enterprise-based. As in the other countries, Japan has industrial and craft unions, with national centers such as Rengo (the Japanese Trade Union Confederation) and Zenroren (the National Confederation of Trade Unions). Union organizations in Japan consist of industrial unions and enterprise-based unions with national centers at the top. However, enterprise-based unions provide the basis for union activity, and 91.2 percent of the nation's union members pay their dues monthly to an enterprise-based union. Industrial unions are financed by their affiliate enterprise-based unions; national centers by their affiliate industrial unions. Funding is normally based on a per-capita amount.
Because enterprise-based unions provide the financial base for the nation's labor movement, industrial unions and national centers cannot initiate programs to the extent which is necessary. One result is an inability to unionize workers in unorganized enterprises. Forming a labor union in an enterprise requires a large outlay of manpower, time and money. Enterprise-based unions engage in activities designed exclusively for their own members, and do not show much interest in issues that are not directly related to their members. Very few enterprise-based unions try hard to organize their own part-time workers, and have little interest in organizing workers at other enterprises.
The task of organizing new enterprise unions has been left to industrial unions and the national centers. However, because industrial unions and the national centers are financially weak, they rely heavily on staff who are dispatched from enterprise-based unions.
There are exceptions to this situation, and Zensen Domei (Japanese Federation of Textile, Garment, Chemical, Distribution and Allied Industry Workers' Unions) and Zenkin Rengo (Japanese Federation of Metal Industry Unions) are good examples. Though they are industrial federations with enterprise unions at their base, they employ their own organizers. Zensen Domei was originally formed by industrial unions in the textiles industry. In the 1960s and 1970s, the textile industry gradually lost its international competitiveness, with the number of workers in the industry sharply declining. Zensen Domei decided to organize employees in chain stores, which were then expanding, in order to secure its membership base. Today, it is pushing ahead with organizing workers in such emerging fields as the computer industry and the aerospace industry. Zenkin Rengo also employs its own organizers and is organizing workers in smaller-scale metal machinery manufacturers.
Although considerable debate focuses on the merits and demerits of the enterprise union, and exceptions can be cited, at the present time the future of the labor movement in Japan cannot be understood without reference to the enterprise-based structure, which characterized its union movement. Another factor likely to shape the labor movement in the future will be its leadership.
There have been few surveys on the careers of Japan's union leaders. Only five nationwide surveys come to mind, although several have been conducted on union leaders of industrial organizations. This paper utilizes the results of a survey on union leaders conducted between December 1992 and February 1993. The survey was of 2,437 individual unions, consisting of 1,333 unions without branches of all private industries with over 500 members, and 1,104 unions with single branches and a headquarters as of the end of June 1992. Questionnaires were sent to general secretaries of the unions. Twenty-two unions no longer existed, due to mergers or disbandment, by the time the survey was concluded, bringing the total number of unions surveyed to 2,415. Replies were received from 43.5 percent of the unions (1,050 unions), representing 47.4 percent of the unions without branches (580) and 43.1 percent for the unions with branches (470).
Table 1 shows the average profile of those who serve as one of the three union key officials. Union chairmen had an average age of 44.8, with 23.2 years of employment at the company, and 4.8 years as a union leader. He or she had been a full-time official for 7.1 years. The proportion of women chairmen is extremely low at 0.6 percent.
The first of the vice-chairmen were approximately two years younger than the chairman, and correspondingly employed by the company for fewer years. However, the first vice-chairmen had been a full-time official for only 3.2 years, approximately four years less than the chairman. This probably reflects a view that some vice-chairmen are not yet full-time members of their union leadership. The same would also be true for the second vice-chairman.
At the level of the vice-chairmen, a slightly higher proportion of women are active: 1.2 percent of first vice-chairmen were female and 2.2 percent of those second vice-chairmen. Although the percentages are low, the notable trend is perhaps that vice-chairmanship is seen as being suited to women.
The average age of general secretaries is 39.7, with 3.6 years employed in the present job and 4.5 years as a full-time official. The general secretary serves as an inside coordinator, crucial to the functioning of the union. Only 0.6 percent of the general secretaries are female.
Two types of unions (traditional unions and new unions) were distinguished based on the chairman's educational background and the industry. The traditional union was defined as one in the manufacturing sector whose chairman had at most a high school education. This occurred in 327 of the 497 unions in the manufacturing sector. The new union was defined as one in the finance and insurance sectors whose chairman had a college or higher education (80 of the 89 unions).
Manufacturing firms have traditionally hired the bulk of their employees from among the nation's middle-school and high-school graduates. For such employees, the union movement provided one way to climb up the corporate ladder. The labor union took on a huge significance for such workers and the union's cooperation was necessary for management. Making one's way up to the top of the enterprise union was thus as difficult as getting promoted to executive positions in management and was possible only for the brightest and most hardworking unionists. Officials with middle-school and high-school degrees in manufacturing became the mainstay of the nation's labor movement.
With the rise in educational standards, however, the proportion of employees with tertiary qualifications rose, and chairmen with such educational backgrounds emerged. Generally speaking, college graduates are union members only for a short while after joining the company. As soon as they are promoted to a managerial post, they leave the union. This tendency has traditionally been most entrenched in finance and insurance firms. Most of the recent new employees in leading banks and insurance companies have college degrees or even higher qualifications. None believe they will complete their careers as a union official. The way unions function in such companies is quite different from traditional unions in manufacturing. The rising ratio of employees with a college education is now also notable in manufacturing. Thus, a comparison of union leaders in these two types of unions may throw light on the future of the enterprise-based union movement in Japan.
Table 2 provides some vital statistics on chairmen and general secretaries in both traditional and new unions. The chairmen in traditional unions are on the average 10.1 years older than their counterparts in new unions. General secretaries in traditional unions are 5.7 years older than their counterparts in the other unions. In traditional unions, leaders assume the chairmanship in their 40s and 50s, while in new unions they usually become chairmen in their 30s. These findings indicate that traditional unions tend to be administered by experienced union leaders, whereas new unions are managed by unionists without such experience.
The younger the chairman, the less work experience he will have had at other companies. This is true for both types of unions. Chairmen aged 30-39 in traditional unions joined their present company at an average age of 18.5. Those aged 40-49 entered their current company at an average age of 18.9, and those aged 50-59 at an average age of 20. In other words, the age of entering the firm was slightly higher for younger leaders. The same trend also occurs among chairmen of new unions. Chairmen aged 30-39 joined their company at an average age of 22.5; those aged 40-49 did so at 23. This shows that leaders in new unions entered as new school graduates.
The third conclusion from Table 2 concerns the relationship between job content and educational background. In many traditional unions, the general secretaries are college educated, whereas in many new unions the general secretaries are high-school graduates.
Where do union officials in Japan's enterprise-based unions come from?
Figure 1 shows the career path of union leaders in unions with branches and unions without branches. Unions were asked about the previous position of each of their officials. The higher the position, the more likely the incumbent office holder had served in a previous position in the union. The figures show that 45.3 percent of the chairmen of unions with branches had advanced to the position from the vice-chairmanship of the headquarters office, 35.6 percent from having been the general secretary of the headquarters office, and 10.3 percent from a position on the executive. This means that 8.8 percent of such chairmen had been recruited from other functions within unions.
A closer look reveals that union leaders do not necessarily come from the position immediately below them. Only the chairmen of the headquarters office, the general secretary of the headquarters office and the general secretary of the branch are recruited directly from the positions immediately below them. Other posts are filled with persons one or two steps further down in the union hierarchy. The vice-chairmen, for example, tend to be appointed directly from the executive of the headquarters office, with 19.3 percent coming directly from the branch level. Moreover, a high percent of the executives at the headquarters level come from the executives at the branch level. A high percent of the branch chairmen come from the branch executive.
Nevertheless, it is a fact that a good number of unionists move up the hierarchy shown in Figure 1 step by step. The major exception is the jump to the vice-chairmanship of the headquarters office. Only 15.1 percent of the vice-chairmen come via the position of general secretary. While the vice-chairmanship at the headquarters office is seen as a preparatory post for becoming chairman of the headquarters office, it is also seen as the final career move for many union leaders. Many of those who become vice-chairmen of the headquarters office without having been the general secretary of the headquarters office seem to end their union careers at that level and do not make the final step to become chairman of the headquarters office.
The same tendency appears in the unions without branches. In the main, union leaders excluding the vice-chairman climb the ladder step by step. Again a large percentage of vice-chairmen (77.6%) come directly from the executive committee without serving as secretary. The vice-chairmanship again seems to be a final career goal for many of the union leaders.
Figures 2 and 3 separate out the career paths in traditional and new unions. In Figure 3 the diagram for unions with branches is truncated as the flows from the lower level were small. Five conclusions may be drawn from these two figures.
First, in the traditional unions with branches, the general secretary of the headquarters office is the key position for those aspiring to be chairmen of the headquarters office (43.4%), followed by the vice-chairmanship of the headquarters office (38.9%).
Second, the general secretaries of traditional unions with branches (70.9%) have come directly from the executive board, while 10.7 percent were previously branch chairmen and 11.7 percent were branch secretaries.
Third, some branch chairmen in traditional unions (6.9%) are recruited from the head office executive board.
Fourth, the same trends are visible in both unions with branches and unions without branches.
Fifth, in new unions, a certain percent of the general secretaries (17.4% and 14%) had been vice-chairmen. There are a variety of career paths for union leaders in the traditional unions with branches. While all paths may not exist in any one union, career paths suited to individual organizations have emerged during the long history of the union movement. In the new unions, on the other hand, there is virtually no difference in the career paths of union leaders between unions with branches and unions without branches, perhaps reflecting the fact that individual officials stay in office for only short periods of time. Normally, the career path of union leaders depends upon organization form.
Where are Japan's union leaders headed after serving as officials in an enterprise-based union? The likely career path after being a union official will be an important consideration for many individuals when they decide to pursue a career in the union movement.
Figure 4 indicates in percentage terms the direction in which union leaders will move. For example, 41.2 percent of head office chairmen of unions with branches will return to the management hierarchy in their company and become managers and/or executives while 48.2 percent will return as non-managers. Another 4.3 percent will retire from their office and their company. There are five main points which can be gathered from Figure 4.
First, most union leaders return to their former jobs at the company after stepping down as chairmen. Nearly half of those receive managerial or executive posts immediately after stepping down.
Second, in unions with branches, about 70 percent of union leaders, excluding general secretaries of the headquarters office and the branches return to their company after serving out their terms of office. General or branch secretaries are more likely to be promoted to upper-level posts within their unions.
Third, in unions with branches, about one in every four vice-chairmen and general secretaries at the headquarters level will be promoted to the chairmanship of the headquarters office. The tendency is slightly more pronounced for the general secretary. The probabilities of such movement for vice-chairmen is greater than for the general secretary in unions without branches.
Fourth, the lower the post, the lower the percentage of union leaders who return to their company as managers. Nevertheless, except for members of the branch executive, a certain percent of those in all positions return to their company as managers.
Fifth, in both unions with branches and unions without branches, an extremely low percentage serve as officials of the enterprise-based union and then move on to an upper-level organization of the industry or the national level. Although not shown in the figure, 1.7 percent of the chairmen of the headquarters in unions with branches and 1.6 percent of those in unions without branches do so.
It is common knowledge in Japan that the chairmen of the headquarters offices step down as the union official and immediately return to the company as managers. However, the fact that the percentage exceeds 40 percent deserves attention. In many companies, top union leaders who are promoted to managerial positions leave the union and shift to the company's managerial team in a single day. While this may be considered to be a normal practice, this practice will likely affect the basis for union activity. It is hard to believe that general union members will reveal their real concerns to a leader who will soon be in a power relationship to them as their manager. This is an important problem that must be considered in any appraisal of the labor movement's future.
One more point that should be stressed in relation to Figure 4 is the importance of the post of general secretary as a training ground for the union's top leadership. Those who have served as general secretaries, whether at the headquarters or the branch level, are highly likely to remain in the union and become one of the top officials. Accordingly, the general secretary position must be regarded as more than a simple step forward on a career escalator.
Figure 5 summarizes the union leaders of traditional unions. Comparing Figure 4 and 5 reveals that ordinary and traditional unions show basically the same trends. However, two differences are conspicuous. First, the route to the vice-chairmanship of the headquarters office from the general secretary's position is narrower in unions with branches (13.1% to 8.1%). On the other hand, the flow from being the secretary to the chairman of the headquarters is greater (27.2% to 32.4%). In traditional unions, the general secretary of the headquarters office is a marginally more important position as a training ground for the chairmanship of the headquarters office.
Second, more than half of the chairmen of unions without branches have returned to their company as managers and executives. In Figure 4, 42.6 percent of the chairmen of such unions assumed managerial and executive posts. For traditional unions (Figure 5), the statistic was 51.9 percent. Traditional unions are the unions in which chairmen with a high-school education or less predominate. For employees with a high-school education or less, becoming the chairman of a union without branches is one path to a managerial post.
Figure 6 indicates the situation of leaders in new unions. The results of the survey on officials of branches in unions with branches were again omitted due to the small number of responding unions. The most marked difference between traditional unions and new unions lies in the fact that an overwhe4lming number of the leaders in new unions return to the workplace in non-managerial positions after serving as chairmen of the headquarters office (70.8% and 71.1% in Figure 6). This perhaps reflects the age difference. Table 1 showed that the average age of chairmen of the traditional unions is 48.1, while that of the chairmen of new unions is 38. Leaving the post of chairmanship at about 40 will naturally mean that fewer are able to come back into managerial posts.
Figure 6 also reveals that 11.9 percent of the vice-chairmen of the new unions without branches have become general secretaries. Furthermore, a solid 25 percent of executive officers have moved to the post of vice-chairmen. This seems to indicate that one option may be for some union leaders to move from the executive to the vice-chairmanship, then to the position of general secretary and then to the chairmanship.
Another characteristic of the new unions without branches is that very few general secretaries return to their company. Only 20 percent in the unions without branches have returned to their company. This percentage is small when considering that over half of the general secretaries of unions with branches of both traditional and new type return to their companies. This means that general secretaries in unions without branches of the new type are likely to serve a further period in the union. In this type of union, the general secretary is not in his final union post.
In this paper, I have summarized some characteristics of the leadership in Japan's enterprise-based labor unions. Many of the nation's union leaders are involved in union activity only for a specific period of their working lives, and then normally return to their companies. This is true of the chairman of the headquarters office in the union of the large enterprise.
Officials of enterprise-based unions uphold the nation's labor union movement, but most do not intend to devote their working lives to the union movement. In other words, novices tend to be the driving force behind the nation's labor movement. Can they reinvigorate the nation's unions? There is room to be skeptical. However, if there is a value in putting a break on the nation's plunging unionization rate, urgent attention must be given to fostering tomorrow's union leaders.
|*||For more detail, see Hiroyuki Fujimura, New Unionism: Beyond Enterprise Unionism? in Japanese Labour and Management in Transition, edited by Mari Sako and Hiroki Sato (London: Routedge).|
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