Photo/Illutration Tomoko Yoshino, president of Rengo (Japanese Trade Union Confederation), left, is part of a group chatting with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during a New Year gathering organized by Rengo in Tokyo on Jan. 5. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

There is nothing untoward or wrong about Japan’s largest labor organization lobbying the ruling camp for policies to promote the interests of workers. But by building closer relations with the ruling bloc, Rengo (Japanese Trade Union Confederation) could risk endorsing questionable policy measures favored by the administration or contributing to widening the rift within the opposition camp.

Rengo’s political flirtation with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party raises questions about its role as an organization representing not just member workers but also the nation’s entire labor force.

Rengo, the nation’s largest trade union national grouping, backs the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Democratic Party for the People (DPP). But it has also been forging closer ties with the LDP and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration in response to the ruling camp’s overtures.

Prior to last year’s Lower House election, Rengo head Tomoko Yoshino, who took over the organization’s leadership immediately before the election, criticized the opposition alliance led by the CDP, which included the Japanese Communist Party.

In a sign of the growing warmth between Rengo and the ruling party, Kishida attended the labor organization’s new year party in January, becoming the first LDP prime minister to do so in nine years. Yoshino later accepted invitations to dine with two senior LDP lawmakers, Yuko Obuchi, chair of the Party Organization and Campaign Headquarters, and Aso Taro, the party’s vice president.

Rengo was created in 1989 through a grand merger of a range of labor organizations, including the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan (Sohyo), which mainly represented central and local government employees and supported then Shakaito (Japan Socialist Party), and the Japanese Confederation of Labor (Domei), an umbrella organization of private-sector labor unions that backed what was the now-defunct Minshato (Democratic Socialist Party).

Its inaugural platform, titled “The Course of Rengo,” said Rengo would “cooperate for the formation of a new political force that can govern the nation and help realize a healthy parliamentary democracy that enables a power transfer.” Rengo seems to have forgotten its original purpose.

Rengo played a key role in uniting non-LDP groups in 1993 to help form the administration of former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, the first non-LDP government of Japan since 1955, and swept Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) to power in 2009. Both administrations, however, turned out to be short-lived. Since Minshinto (Democratic Party), the successor of Minshuto, was broken up in 2017, Rengo has not supported a single party. As the DPP has made political moves to expand cooperation with the ruling camp, such as voting for the government’s budget bill, Rengo is facing increasingly serious political antinomy.

The DPP has been moving to deepen its ties with the LDP in response to political pressure from private-sector labor unions that support the party. A symbolic development took place before the Lower House election in Aichi Prefecture’s No. 11 electoral district, which includes the city of Toyota, the home base of Toyota Motor Corp. A candidate backed by the auto giant’s labor union who had never been defeated in the district decided not run for the poll, allowing an LDP candidate to win in the constituency for the first time.

The automaker’s labor union said the decision not to field its candidate was aimed at ending confrontation between labor and management for united efforts to tackle challenges confronting the company, such as the need to achieve carbon neutrality. But it is hard to comprehend why competition between the ruling and opposition camps for power could hamper efforts to attain such important policy goals.

The LDP’s political strategy for this year says it will actively pursue policy talks with “Rengo and other friendly labor unions.” There is no doubt that the ruling party will make more political moves in the run-up to the summer Upper House election to woo the DPP and private-sector labor unions that disagree with the CDP and public-sector unions over such policy issues as nuclear power generation and national security.

The number of Rengo member workers has declined to around 7 million from 8 million when it was launched. Rengo has failed to make any notable progress on its key challenge of recruiting non-regular workers to join. Rengo should ask itself whether it will be able to serve the interests of workers by becoming chummy with the LDP, which maintains strong ties with employer organizations, including Keidanren (Japan Business Federation).

Rengo should not lose sight of its original mission, which is to protect the rights and livelihoods of all workers.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 26