Japanese labor unions under COVID-19

March 18, 2021 [No.86 - 2020]

Mr. Suzuki Fujikazu,
Coordinator, Research Center for Solidarity-based Society



Japanese labor unions under COVID-19

Part 3. The age of living with COVID-19 and the post-COVID world: Japanese labor unions at a crossroads


The beloved song introduced in the opening ceremony to mark the formation of JTUC-RENGO in November 1989 included the well-known line, "Everybody seeks their own kind of happiness." Already at that time, the trend had begun toward diversification of ways of working and of living. Today, more than 30 years later, while this diversification has accelerated further, unfortunately we are in a time in which "everybody's own kind of unhappiness" has diverged in multiple directions. The harsh realities of COVID-19 demonstrate this fact vividly.


While moving steadily to address "everybody's own kind of unhappiness," the labor union movement in Japan must seek practical solutions that can satisfy everybody. Perhaps it can be said that the time has come for bold revisions to the existing style of the movement and seeking out new forms of solidarity. The medium-/long-term policy "a Secure Society based on Work," which was affirmed right before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, already incorporates such an awareness of the issues and even mentions specific measures for addressing it. Probably the experimental efforts that have appeared amid the responses to COVID-19 should be developed further based on firmly establishing them within the framework of the age of living with COVID-19 and the post-COVID world, seeing them as seeds of future possibilities. For example, the "Q” Support System for All Workers by RENGO (Wor-Q) initiative may be the start of a path toward cyber-unionism for Japan. The “unifan” mutual support and assistance network could lead to the development of a new form of solidarity, by reviving today the founding principles of the labor union movement in the 18th-19th centuries, as a social movement in which labor unions, mutual aid associations, cooperatives, nonprofits, and NGOs work together as one in harmony.


The findings of the basic survey of labor unions, announced at the end of last year, show that the number of labor union members in Japan as of the end of June 2020 was up for the sixth consecutive year since 2015, even as the number of persons employed decreased by 940,000 year on year due to the economic downturn caused by COVID-19. Union density also was up, to 17.1% (up 0.4 points from one year earlier), rising for the first time in 11 years. The trend toward organization in recent years has been driven by the increase in part-time labor union members, who now account for 13.7% of all members of labor unions. Union membership is steadily growing more diverse. In his comments on the findings of the basic survey of labor unions, JTUC-RENGO General Secretary Yasunobu Aihara noted that these rises in membership and in union density even as the number of employed workers decreased "show the diligent efforts of labor and management to protect employment even amid COVID-19 in most workplaces where collective labor-management relations have been achieved." Today, it probably could be said that Japan's labor unions stand at an important crossroads that will affect whether or not they will be able to find a path to revitalization amid the current crisis.


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