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Organizers Remark at Zenroren’s 63rd General Council meeting

Obata Masako
President of the National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren)
January 26, 2023

Hello, everyone. I’m Zenroren President Obata Masako. At the start of the 63rd General Council meeting I want to express my deep respect to you all who are striving every day in preparation for the 2023 People’s Spring Struggle amid the never-ending coronavirus pandemic and rapid price increases.    

We are waging the fourth Spring Struggle since the coronavirus pandemic began.

In the present eighth wave of coronavirus infections, cluster transmissions of the virus are occurring at elderly care facilities, and medical services are at breaking point or almost collapsing. The number of coronavirus deaths reportedly was 15,399 between December 1, 2022, and January 21, 2023. One in every four deaths since the data taking began in May 2020 died during the last 1.5 months. The present situation is very serious.

Nevertheless, the government plans to downgrade COVID-19 from the current Category Two level to Category Five, which includes seasonal influenza. Now is not the right time to discuss whether COVID-19 should be downgraded to Category Five or not. I think that the need now is to take measures to drastically strengthen the healthcare system to curb infections.  

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio used his policy speech at the beginning of the Ordinary Session of the Diet on January 23 to explain his plan to consider and implement step-by-step transition regarding the medical care system, public support to medical costs. But the government bears responsibility for public health and must not relinquish its responsibility for public medical services.

At the outset I want to urge the government to strengthen the measures to protect public safety from the eighth wave of infection.

Let me now talk about the 2023 People’s Spring Struggle. We have had in-depth discussions about the slogans for the campaign. The slogans we propose today are: “Upgrade the trade union; protect people’s living from the soaring prices; demand a sharp wage increase, from the bottom up; demand improvement of social security services instead of pushing ahead with arms buildup and tax increases. We have worked out a Spring Struggle plan for the workers and people of other sections to join their forces in the struggle focusing on the fight for redressing economic inequality, and winning a big pay raise from the bottom up.

I want to talk about two issues regarding these slogans.

One is about the issue of winning a sharp wage increase from the bottom up.

Workers are forced to endure very low wages, the wage disparities, and the soaring wages, and we launched a “nationwide action: we can’t help but demand a pay raise now.” Our industrial and regional federations took the offensive as the impacts of price hikes were so severe that we could not wait until the Spring Struggle begins.

These actions have created an atmosphere in which the government and the business sector are compelled to talk about the need for wage increase. Prime Minister Kishida at his New Year press conference said that he would aim at the realization of bigger wage increases than wage growth. The report of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren)’s Committee on Management and Labor Policy also says it “will call for proactive steps toward maintaining and strengthening the momentum of wage increase to fulfill corporate social responsibility while paying attention to the ‘price trends’.”

But it is also clear that the “new capitalism” or “structural wage increase” advocated by the government and the business sector cannot realize wage increases to ensure that everyone can lead a humane life everywhere.”

That’s exactly what Prime Minister Kishida said in his policy speech. He opened the “structural wage increase” portion of his speech by emphasizing that “businesses will increase their profits and distribute the fruit to the workers, so people will spend more money and the economy will grow. This favorable cycle hinges on wage increase.” This is the “trickle-down theory” they have been advocating since the era of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

The Committee on Management and Labor Policy report says it is “well aware that responding to price hikes is a social need.” But at the same time it argues that “the overriding principle that wages should be determined by each company in accordance with its conditions will remain unchanged.” This means that it continues to cling to the principle that wages should be determined according to the company’s conditions and its ability to pay. Keidanren also emphasizes the importance of maintaining “stable industrial relations” and “labor-management collaboration” by saying that the labor and management are not antagonistic in relations but are business partners together creating value. This is how they are increasing attacks on labor with the aim of dismantling the Spring Struggle.

Their call for “facilitating labor mobility” which constitutes the core of “structural wage increase” is a way of increasing mobility of employment, which is used to shift the responsibility for wage increase onto the workers.

We have gained conviction in the situation that Zenroren and the People’s Spring Struggle Committee have opened to pave the way for wage increase. We are called upon to create large waves of the movement in the 2023 People’s Spring Struggle to demand big pay raise from the bottom up by the union fight to close the gender wage gap and the gap between full-time permanent workers and contingent workers. We will never fail to seek wage increase for all workers so that everyone can earn wages to ensure a humane living. 

As the Committee on Management and Labor Policy report admits, large corporations have been amassing their internal reserves even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. In the period of July-September 2022, the total amount of internal reserved held by large corporations capitalized at more than one billion yen reached 505 trillion yen.

According to the People’s Spring Struggle White Paper 2023, which was compiled by Zenroren and the Japan Research Institute of Labor Movement (Rodo-soken), a pay raise of 450,000 yen per year is equivalent to a raise of 25,000 yen per month plus bonuses equal to six monthly base salaries. This wage increase is possible by using just 1.39 percent of internal reserves for each employee at 100 out of 112 companies which hold more than 10 million yen in internal reserves. In this year’s Spring Struggle Zenroren and the People’s Spring Struggle Committee is demanding a monthly wage increase of more than 30,000 yen. That’s only 1.67 percent of the internal reserves.

The point is that wage increase is not impossible but that the workers have not got fair distribution.

It is necessary for the trade unions to increase their bargaining power, enhance the power of unity of industrial and regional federations in concerted action, and organize workers in the fight to win their demands. Let us upgrade the union to win wage increase, from the bottom up.

I also want to point out the issue of the Kishida government pushing ahead with an arms buildup policy that destroys peace, endanger people’s lives and livelihoods.  Late last year, the Kishida Cabinet approved three security-related policy documents, which put forward plans to possess enemy strike capabilities and double the country’s military spending. The full implementation of these plans would represent an extraordinary military buildup policy in violation of the Constitution and go against the “exclusively defensive posture” which has been upheld by the successive Japanese governments.

Prime Minister Kishida has admitted that his government is making a major departure from the security policy that has been retained by the successive governments. It is outrageous that his government made such an important decision that has a bearing on the foundation of national government without consulting with the Diet.   

What’s more, Prime Minister Kishida had first traveled to the United States to report to US President Joe Biden about his decision on this big arms buildup plans before having the Diet discuss them. This clearly shows that the government’s arms buildup plans have nothing to do with the defense of Japan or the people. They force Japan to play a role as spear in the US strategy in Asia. I must point out that it is the plan to dragging Japan into war.

Such an arms buildup policy would turn Japan into a war-fighting country by imposing national mobilization. I want to share with you the recognition that it will also affect our work and living conditions.

The thing that really matters is that the workplace will be forced to serve to turn Japan into a country that fights wars. The three security related policy documents call for the utilization of infrastructure, including airports and seaports, in anticipation of emergencies. In fact, it came to light that US forces had planned to carry out training exercises late in January at Shimojishima Airport in Okinawa Prefecture. The plan was revoked after Okinawa Prefecture requested US forces to refrain from using the airport based on the “Yara Memorandum” of understanding (executed in 1971 between the national government and the Okinawa Prefectural Government prohibiting military use of Shimojishima Airport). But there is a growing possibility that the civilian airports and seaports are used for military purposes. If that happens, the workers at those facilities could be made to perform military-related tasks. It is a matter of concern that this trend could affect healthcare and other public services.

The government is attempting to order the National Hospital Organization (NHO) and the Japan Community Healthcare Organization (JCHO) to return their deposits as early as possible so that the fund can be used for military purposes. The government is going to create a system to use the tax money that should be used to support the lives of the workers and people in general as part of the “defense” budget.

We are demanding that the government fulfill its duty to realize a sharp wage increase from the bottom up instead of doubling military expenditure. There are many things that politics can do: raising the minimum wage; drastically increasing support for small- and medium-sized businesses and help to raise the minimum wage; raising wages for public service employees, including contingency employees hired for the fiscal year; and building up a public system that gives a pay raise to all care workers.

Zenroren warns that the present big arms buildup policy is tantamount to a virtual adverse revision of the Constitution and poses serious threats to the safety and living conditions of all workers and people in general. On December 14, one day before the Cabinet decision on the three security-related policy documents, we held a meeting of the task force on the struggle to defend the Constitution and proposed an immediate campaign focusing on study and dialogue in workplaces and community areas.

Taking into account the opinions expressed during the meeting, we have deepened discussions with the Organizing Committee of the People’s Movement and the Joint Constitution Center on the future struggle. On January 23, timed to coincide with the opening of the Ordinary Session of the Diet, the “Liaison Council for the Campaign against Arms Buildup and Large Tax Increase that Prepare War and Threaten Peace, People’s Safety and Livelihoods” was formed at the call of three organizations –the Organizing Committee of the People’s Movement, the Joint Constitution Center, and the Central Organizing Committee against the Japan-US Security Treaty. The liaison is a loosely organized. Participating organizations will respect each other, concentrate their strength as necessary, and broaden cooperation.

The liaison council has produced a petition sheet titled “We oppose military buildup and tax increase that destroys peace, people’s safety, and livelihood.” I call on you to collect signatures.

I think that study and dialogue should be the basic forms of our activity. I also think that the power to defeat the government’s dangerous plans lies in each of the many union members’ effort to understand and let as many people as possible know about the terrible aim of the arms buildup plan by linking the issue with their own demands arising in day-to-day life.

We will work to increase coworkers who work with us to broaden the cooperation in defense of peace, safety and living conditions as an integral part of the Spring Struggle.

Finally, I would like to speak about our activities based on Zenroren’s gender equality declaration adopted by its 31st biennial Convention in July.

Basically, we implement the first part of the gender equality declaration: “All Zenroren member organizations learn, discuss and act to promote gender equality in the Zenroren movement.” In the Spring Struggle discussions taking place in various places, gender equality has been discussed at many organizations.

Zenroren’s committee on the promotion of gender equality has made various efforts, including the production and distribution of a pamphlet to help union members’ study about gender equality. It is also producing a video for study, We have begun discussing a plan to hold a symposium with the National Federation of Consumers’ Cooperatives Workers’ Unions (Seikyororen) with the aim of formulating a policy about "wages, labor laws, and social security systems that support individuals’ self-help and enable everyone to work and fulfill family responsibilities at the same time” as called for by the declaration.

Thanks to the efforts of Zenroren’s individual unions and regional organizations in preparation for today’s General Council meeting, I think that their attendance has ‚µshown certain level of progress for the goal of increasing women’s participation in the decision making body.

I hope that there will be more discussions to make the declaration meaningful by hearing your opinions.

With this I conclude my speech to propose the action plan for the 2023 People’s Spring Struggle and other documents. I hope you will deepen discussion of these proposals in the two-day meeting. On behalf of the Executive Committee, I want to thank you for your attention.

 
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