The Rise of Feminist Labor Unions in Japan

By Shaun Richman, for

A good union is a feminist organization. We reduce the gender wage gap, fight for family-work-life balance and non-discriminatory promotion standards and sometimes literally sound the alarm on workplace sexual harassment and assault - among many other ways that working women use their union membership to fight for equality.

For a time, Japanese labor unions fell far short of that standard.

Although there are very strong labor protections and anti-discrimination laws on the books in Japan, they are often evaded through the proliferation of contingent employment and ignored with lame appeals to “cultural traditions” Female workers routinely experience sexual harassment, workplace bullying and lack of career advancement. The traditional enterprise unions that are common in Japan had a pretty bad track record of even seeing these practices as wrong, let alone standing up for their female members.

Starting in the 1990’s, a group of activists started new women-only unions to compete with the official unions and advocate for their members’ rights at work and in society. A recent book by Anne Zacharias-Walsh explores this story as part of a transnational solidarity project. Our Unions, Our Selves: The Rise of Feminist Labor Unions in Japan (Cornell University Press) is a fascinating account of union decline and potential rebirth that feels both entirely alien and yet very familiar.

It is also very interesting to anyone who is thinking deeply about the pros and cons of exclusive representation here in the United States. In most countries, unions compete for members and workplace leaders across industries and sometimes on the shop floor. Our peculiar system of one exclusive representative in a workplace, and formal agreements between unions not to compete is only shared, in part, by two other countries. American trade unionists literally exported their model to Canada and Japan. Following World War II, CIO union leaders helped Japanese workers craft their labor relations framework as a part of the U.S.-led rebuilding process.

Because of that, Japanese experiments with women-only unions are instructive about how new unions could even go about breaking the exclusivity model, and what might happen as a result.

The Japanese unions took the exclusive representation system and mutated it into a very peculiar model of company unions. There is no Japanese equivalent of the United Auto Workers union; that is there’s no union that seeks to represent all workers at every domestic factory in the auto industry. Instead, there’s a union for Toyota workers and another one for Honda workers. Although the unions don’t shy from militant job actions - particularly when contracts are being renegotiated - they remain very loyal to the company. After all, increased profits and efficiency could mean higher wages. This loyalty is further enticed by Japanese firms offering jobs for life for their regular, full-time employees with a career track of promotions

Women are excluded from much of this framework. This is partly explained by the proliferation of temporary and subcontracted jobs that have been created to offset the costs of those well-paying lifetime jobs with an underclass of workers who just don’t count in the companies’ promises of mutual loyalty. But the reason that women more often fall into these substandard jobs is better explained by a patriarchal society that makes the U.S. look like some kind of working women’s paradise by contrast.

As Zacharias-Welch describes it, a female colleague is expected to pour tea for all of her male co-workers - no matter what her seniority or rank is in relation to them - before a work meeting will begin. Worse, when an employer feels an economic need to downsize a workforce that has been promised jobs for life, a supervisor might bully and orchestrate the social ostracization of a woman who refuses to voluntarily “retire.” The traditional enterprise unions rarely filed grievances to defend women’s jobs since they were politically dominated by men who believed that men need the jobs more in order to provide for their families.

It’s no wonder that some women decided to go their own way and form voluntary membership unions for women only. The members of the union join as individuals, not as collective groups. A worker would tend to join only when she had a grievance that the traditional union was not helping with or if she fell into any number of sub-contracted or temp work schemes that kept her out of union contract protections. The women’s union would provide advice and counsel. By threatening legal action over employer practices that were plainly in violation of laws that were routinely flouted, the women-only unions could force a recalcitrant employer to the table over a grievance. Theirs would not be the strongest hand. Lacking the legal power of the collective bargaining agreement and the collective power of the woman’s co-workers, most of these grievances would still result in a “voluntary” resignation, but also some financial compensation. In other words, workers who would otherwise have been totally screwed received a degree of justice and compassion.

Women who remained members of the women-only unions might do so openly and quit the official union. Many others chose to quietly pay dues to the women’s unions while retaining membership in the traditional union in order to go along to get along - a Japanese feminist slant on the American radical tradition of the “two card man.”

Lessons for America

An important point, and an instructive lesson for U.S. trade unionists is that Japanese women’s shift from exclusive representation to a competitive union model didn’t come about through legislative reform, which is as difficult to achieve there as it currently is here. It was achieved by exploiting the very brokenness of the labor relations system.

Recently, over at In These Times, I participated in a roundtable discussion with Kate Bronfenbrenner and Labor Notes’ Chris Brooks about whether unions should abandon exclusive representation after the anti-union Janus decision.

In Janus, the five right-wing justices weaponized the First Amendment to outlaw agency fees in the public sector. They aim to bankrupt unions, who must continue to spend resources on workers who decline to pay union fees. At this point, our labor laws are completely broken. I have advocated that we break the laws even further in ways that will make employers regret ever tinkering with Right-to-Work.

If unions competed on the shop floor level for workplace leadership and dues-paying members, that would have the effect of making it much harder to achieve any kind of enduring labor peace and would make no-strike clauses basically unenforceable.

Dr. Bronfenbrenner warns, quite rightly, that what causes the so-called “free-rider” problem that has some unions thinking about ceding exclusivity is the Duty of Fair Representation:

Those of us who were progressives saw that Duty of Fair Representation was the best thing that ever happened to unions because DFR said that unions had to represent women, people of color, the LGBT community, and you couldn't discriminate against part-time versus full-time [workers]. Historically it was used to force the old guard had to give up domination of unions and to fight for union democracy because the simplest basis of DFR is the concept of good faith. If used effectively, it would be the thing that could break the hold of the mob, or the old guard, or just white men. So you have to remember when you give up exclusive representation you could lose DFR. I can tell you that women and people of color are not going to want to give it up.

The feminist labor unions in Japan are evidence that backs up my contention that in a competitive union model, even without the statutory protections of DFR, some organization inevitably steps into the void and serves as the feminist or anti-racist union. 

Lessons for Japan

The heart of Our Unions, Our Selves documents a transnational solidarity project that Zacharias-Walsh coordinated where leaders of the Japanese women’s unions came to the U.S. to learn about women’s union organizing strategy and experience before embarking on a series of strategic retreats to grapple with the challenges of their model.

To be clear: the Japanese women-only unions face serious organizational challenges. While individual women have won small measures of dignity and justice, these new unions - at least at the time that the book was written - have not won much power for women collectively nor established much of a permanent presence in many workplaces.

One major challenge they face is that most members stop paying dues shortly after their grievance is settled. The union leaders’ theory of change was that women who participated in prosecuting their own grievance would come away empowered and more active. Encouraged by their American sisters, the unions surveyed their current and former members and found that the opposite was true. The workers who joined because they had grievances were the least likely to remain members. The workers who joined to be a part of a social movement - as increasing numbers of younger women are doing - stayed for the long haul.

Part of this challenge is inherently Japanese. The women who founded the women-only unions intentionally embraced an individual membership model because they felt strongly that few women workers were ready to take charge and “act out” as union with a more collective model must.

But part of this dynamic is sure to pop up if new alternative unions experiment with workplace competition in the U.S. The traditional or dominant union is likely to retain the loyalty of most workers in a shop, as they have the historical track record of wins in the past and as the official bargaining agent on record with a legal right to demand negotiations with the employer. Individual memberships in the alternative unions are more likely to be situational. Workers may switch unions - or become dual-card holders - when the alternative union is running a campaign that makes sense with a demand on the boss that resonates.

Imagine here a collective bargaining agreement that settles with no progress on paid family leave or child care allowances. The minority of younger workers for whom this is a major issue break away to campaign for it. That campaign could now include slowdowns and work-to-rule actions that are forbidden by the union contract they now claim not to be bound by. While there are actions taking place, and as long as they provoke any management response, that alternative union may retain a loyal militant minority. But as soon as the union takes a break from campaign, or picks a new issue that isn’t as important, it might see a decline in membership.

Now, this might read like the labor law version of a sci-fi spec script. We just won’t know how a multiple competitive union model might play out in the U.S. until someone tries it. But the Japanese women-only unions provide a reasonable example. Most importantly, they provide the most important object lesson here: They just did it. And after a few years of experimentation, they stepped back and engaged in the thoughtful introspection and strategic readjustment that Our Unions, Our Selves details.

—Shaun Richman contributes regularly to Steward Update and as well as In These Times and other outlets.

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