Photo/Illutration Tomoko Yoshino became the eighth head of Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, on Oct. 6. (Shiro Nishihata)

Tomoko Yoshino, a veteran labor union leader, has become the new chief of Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, taking the helm of the nation’s largest labor organization amid declining union membership rates and deepening political divisions within the body. 

Yoshino is the first woman to head Rengo, which was founded in 1989 as the umbrella organization of labor unions.

Yoshino is also the first Rengo chair who does not hail from an “enterprise union” of a major company. She has served as vice chair of the Japanese Association of Metal, Machinery and Manufacturing Workers (JAM), an industrial union composed mostly of workers at small and midsize manufacturers.

In another first, Rengo’s leadership has selected Hideyuki Shimizu, chairman of the Japan Teachers’ Union, the largest labor union of school teachers, mostly of public schools, to its No. 2 position, secretary-general, the post that has been held by private sector labor leaders.

It took Rengo an unusually long time to select its new head because of infighting over its alliance with opposition parties and other political discord. The new leadership was selected only after an unusual step to extend the deadline for settling on the candidate.

The unconventional picks for the top posts reflect the tough challenges confronting Rengo and the labor movement.

Yoshino is taking over the leadership of Rengo at a time of increased importance of the role of labor unions as protectors and champions of the rights and well-being of workers. The prolonged new coronavirus pandemic has caused massive job and income losses.

Rengo needs to become united under the new leadership to tackle a raft of challenges.

In a news conference after she was selected as the top labor leader, Yoshino pledged to expand the scope of Rengo’s activities by talking with a wide range of people including nonunionized workers to understand well the demands from people working on the front line.

Her remarks echo the key challenges confronting the organization.

One is greater diversity in work styles, with nonregular workers accounting for nearly 40 percent of the working population. The number of people working without being employed, such as freelancers, is also on the rise. Labor union membership is shrinking, with unionized workers constituting only 17 percent of all corporate employees.

The relevance of Rengo declined further during the administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which urged employers to raise wages to help the nation wiggle out of its deflationary hole.

Rengo’s political power contributed to the creation of the non-Liberal Democratic Party government led by a broad opposition coalition in 1993 and the rise of the Democratic Party to power in 2009.

As the largest opposition group has split up, however, Rengo is now divided between two camps--one supporting the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the other backing the Democratic Party for the People.

Rengo drew a lot of bitter criticism from its affiliated labor unions four years ago when it engaged in back-door negotiations with the government and Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), the nation’s largest business lobby, over revisions to the bill to revise the Labor Standards Law.

The bill was denounced as an attempt to force highly qualified white-collar professionals to work long hours without receiving overtime pay.

The only way for Rengo to revitalize its organization is to tackle key labor problems and produce results. Poverty and economic disparities will be key topics for the Lower House election at the end of October.

Other long-festering issues include long working hours, “karoshi,” or death from overwork, and various forms of workplace harassments.

Many of the nonregular workers and the heads of single-parent families who have been battered by the pandemic are women. As a union leader who has been devoted to improving the working conditions for women, Yoshino is naturally committed and properly equipped to improve the fate of such working women.

We need to launch campaigns that inspire nonregular workers to join Rengo,” she said.

Labor unions in different industries and different companies, large and small, have widely differing views and opinions about issues concerning nonregular workers and wage hikes.

Rengo’s relevance for the well-being of workers will be sorely tested by whether it can build a consensus on these issues for effective bargaining with employers and the government.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 14