Trade Unions Respond to U.S. Attack on Japanese Workers

As productive industry in the United States is systematically dismantled and sent to low-wage production zones all over the world, the number of products and services actually exported by our country continues to dwindle.  Our mind-boggling and staggering trade deficit for 2006 was $763 billion dollars, the fifth consecutive year of record-breaking deficits.  Be clear about what this means: it means that on the whole our country imported goods and services valued at $763 billion dollars more than everything we sold and exported abroad — just in 2006!  It doesn’t take a scientist to realize that this is no way to run things and that it can’t go on for very much longer without a colossal day of reckoning.

Corporate America still has exports in mind however — just not the kind of exports that any of us here can be proud of.  Take for instance the recent attempts by the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) to pressure the Japanese government into “modernizing” their overtime pay system.  This is really nothing more than a plan to deform and weaken the already weak Japanese overtime laws further, enabling companies to compel workers to labor for free.  This in a country that actually has a word to describe the phenomenon of death from overwork, or “karoshi.” 

The ACCJ assault on overtime pay is a continuation of their brazen interference in Japan’s internal political system, and merely another manifestation of the extensive subordination of Japan to U.S. economic, political, and military interests.  A visit to the ACCJ web page and publications list offers gems such as their plan to privatize the Japanese Post Office, privatize airports, and attack just about all the other positive things about life and work in Japan.  Not surprisingly, the ACCJ points to the U.S. deregulated companies-can-do-what-they-please “model” as the solution to all of Japan’s perceived ills.   As someone who has had the pleasure of visiting Japan twice, I can’t think of any political or economic lesson that Japan can “learn” from the U.S.  If anything, we could learn quite a bit from Japan.

(Beyond the 100 military bases we maintain in Japan, if you have any doubts about the willingness of U.S. governmental and corporate bodies to interfere in the domestic policies of Japan, visit the “Japan” subsection of the recent U.S. Trade Representatives (USTR) report.

This report is loaded with all kinds of demands placed on Japan, such as a request for a clamp down on their insurance cooperatives (kyosai), so that U.S. insurance companies don’t have to compete with these not-for-profit mutual aid groups, to demands that Japan allow a flood of subsidized U.S. rice, and allow unlimited and potentially BSE-infected beef imports.  There is also a several-page lecture to Japan on how they need to deregulate their electricity and gas industry.  I wonder if the USTR will explain to them what happened here with Enron?)

The current Japanese Liberal Democratic Party government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe eagerly cooperates with the anti-labor directions he is getting from his U.S. benefactors, but working people in Japan are a lot less excited about any elimination of their overtime pay.  The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) has mounted considerable resistance to the attack on overtime pay over the past year, successfully forcing the Abe government to postpone any legislative action until after parliamentary elections this summer.  Knowing full well, however, that the corporate and political forces who will profit from the overtime revisions will be back as soon as the elections are over, the progressive wing of the Japanese labor movement has gone into action.  In addition to organizing multiple mass protests against the attacks on overtime pay, the 1.3 million member National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren) dispatched an investigatory delegation to the United States recently in order to get to the bottom of the particular attack generated by the ACCJ.

The exact scheme being peddled in Japan by the ACCJ is labeled as a means to “Modernize Work Hours Regulation and Establish a White-Collar Exemption System.”  The document, obtained by Zenroren and its think tank Rodo-Soken (Japan Research Institute of Labor Movement), urges the Japanese government to deform its overtime laws along the lines of recent changes imposed in 2004 on our overtime rules by the Bush Administration.  The ACCJ report by its Labor Mobility Task Force lectures the Japan Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) on the need to establish an overtime system based on the U.S. model, including a vast expansion of white-collar workers reclassified to be exempt from overtime pay rights, as well as an enlargement of the number of workers considered “supervisory” and therefore ineligible to receive overtime pay.  There’s more in the details, but the anti-labor gist is evident.

The joint Zenroren/Rodo-Soken study delegation arrived in the U.S. in early March, determined to dig-up the facts behind the ACCJ attack, as well as to ascertain the exact situation of U.S. workers when it comes to overtime law coverage and enforcement — or lack of.  Visiting first with the Labor Notes publication and then with staff at the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) in Detroit, the group then moved on to meet with SEIU Local 1199 along with the Labor Research Association in New York City.  The final leg of their whirlwind overtime pay investigation tour brought the delegation to Washington, D.C.  Here, they were hosted by the Teamsters union (IBT), the Newspaper Guild, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Economic Policy Institute (EPI), as well as my union, the United Electrical Workers Union (UE).   The group then returned to Japan, and is in the process of preparing an extensive report on what was discovered and uncovered.  Much of it is not very pretty.  Thanks to Zenroren, no stone was left unturned regarding the question of exactly how overtime pay is paid here in the U.S.  There is no doubt in my mind that they are now much better equipped to oppose the next round of attacks sure to fall on them in this regard.

It is disgraceful and embarrassing — but not surprising —  to discover that U.S. companies are working to export anti-labor schemes such as a repeal of overtime pay and impose them on Japanese working people.  That said, the recent study mission to the U.S. by the Zenroren/Rodo-Soken delegation was, to me, one of the finest examples of bilateral joint trade union work in recent memory.  Cold War-era taboos and fears about which union is the “approved” or “acceptable” union to meet with were almost non-existent among our U.S. labor unions as I assisted in the organization of this important Zenroren delegation.  What mattered was that Zenroren was trying to confront a common threat — the big business attack on overtime pay — and that it was in all of our best interests to assist them in their search for the facts.

Our U.S. labor movement still has much improvement to make to its international relations policies and attitudes.  The recent example of the joint work conducted between representatives of our labor movement and our Japanese allies is an excellent example of how we might proceed on a positive and respectful course of joint struggle and action to confront our common foes.  Let’s hope that this trend continues.

Chris Townsend is Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE,

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