Japanese labor today: Spring Offensive Offensive?

For better or for worse, the astonishing post-war recovery of the Japanese economy has become a celebrated phenomenon. But few people, save the Japanese consumers themselves, are aware of the accompanying, and equally astonishing, rise in consumer prices - some 10 to 20% annually. As a result, the labor movement in Japan has established as its major premise that wage rates should rise by at least an equivalent amount every year (see chart A).

The strategy devised to carry through this premise has been the uniquely Japanese "Spring Offensive" (Shuntõ). Generally speaking. the strategy runs as follows: at the beginning of each spring, representatives of the labor unions meet to formulate a proposed wage demand for that year, based on the current rate of price hikes. After arriving at an agreed figure, unions all over the country then begin negotiations with the management. As a rule, the lead is taken by the big, powerful unions, while the smaller, weaker ones follow behind them (chart B). The figure which the former manage to wrest from the employers (the "wage-hike index") more or less decides the fate of the latter and of all workers in Japan.

Needless to say, however, negotiations between the two sides run less than smoothly. So, when the talks break down, unions all over the country, led by Sõhyõ (General Council of Trade Unions, the main labor grouping), begin a strike campaign. "Strike;" though, is hardly the word for what takes place. Stopping the trains for two or three hours, knocking off work for half a day, holding a meeting instead - this is the usual pattern. In other words, a form of struggle feasible only for workers in the large corporations. On the other hand, when, as has become usual, the national railway workers announce a one-day strike, all of the mass media - television, radio, newspapers - let out a unanimous shriek of protest about the "inconveniece caused to innocent people" and so on. A radical labor movement in Japan thus faces the same problems as do those elsewhere.

When the wage negotiations finally break down, the government's arbitration council is empowered to intervene. From his point on, all decisions are made by repeated meetings of the "bosses" on both sides, with the result that the union leaders are usually cajoled into accepting a figure which the government mediators think tolerable - high enough to satisfy the unionists, and low enough to appease the company directors. Of course, once this "bosses only" stage is reached, the rank-and-file workers have no clue at all of what is happening to their wage demands. They are like puppets, dancing to the tune of the instructions which reach them from on high.

Anyway, like it or not, the "Spring Offensive" strategy for seeking wage hikes has persisted for the past twenty years, thanks to the prodigious growth rate of the Japanese economy. In the past couple of years, however, sudden changes have been set in motion. The "oil panic" of October 1973 brought Japan nose to eyeball with its greatest business slump since the war. First textile circles, then the motor car manufacturers, the steel industry, and the makers of small electrical appliances, one by one felt the pinch. Throughout Japanese industry, production fell. The consequence for wage negotiations, naturally, was to reduce the size of the "pie" to be shared out between company and employees.

Japan has now entered a phase of "minus" or, at best, slow economic growth. Logically, it is now being said, the "Spring Offensive" strategy should also be abandoned. In fact, though, this strategy has always done more harm than good to those who should reap the benefits. Why? The reasons are:

  1. It has become an annual event - a kind of ceremonial festival in which not only has the sense of a workers' struggle all but disappeared, but which also allows unions to be totally inactive outside the "Spring Offensive" period.
  2. It has accelerated trends towards centralization within the labor movement. Since all effective negotiations are carried among the "bosses," the effect on the labor movement as a whole has been debilitating.
  3. It has been taken over by the goverment and by the opposition Communist, Socialist and Democratic-Socialist parties as a political strategem. In other words, the wage settlement achieved by the campaign is tied up with all sorts of political issues (i.e., parliamentary power struggles), and is used as a pawn in the political underworld.
  4. It benefits only workers employed in large concerns: the vast majority, those employed by small and medium-sized firms, are quite neglected. The present depression has encouraged this tendency, since the latter, unable to strike, are seen to be completely at the mercy of the former, who by their power to dictate the year's wage rise, constitute in effect no more than sub-contractors.
  5. It widens the class differences within the working class itself. The big capitalists, by their conciliatory approach towards the major unions, hive been able to cut them off from the lower-paid workers. In other words, a clever system of divide-and-rule has come about. We Japanese workers must fight to destroy this process!
  6. The time calls for a return to a real labor movement, one which embodies the image of the worker her/himself. Now that the absolute value of the economic pie has shrunk, the "Spring Offensive" style of movement, which shortsightedly relies on simply taking a larger share for itself has become redundant. From now on, a new kind of movement, one which combines voluntary efforts to increase the size of the pie with the assurance of its fair distribution, one with its sights firmly set on a society based on workers' self-management of production, may well be on the move!