Over the last eight months, in an attack upon a labour union unprecedented in the recent past in Japan, the prefectural police of Osaka, Shiga and Wakayama have arrested over seventy members of the Kansai Ready Mixed Concrete branch of the All Japan Building Transport Solidarity Union (Rentai Roso). They have raided and searched over 120 properties seizing computers and smart-phones. At the time of writing, around 50 union activists are still being held in custody by the police. These include most of the leadership of the union.
Japanese law allows police to hold a suspect for 23 days without access to a lawyer, or contact with the outside world. They often get around even this limitation by releasing a suspect and then re-arresting them on a similar charge. While the capitalist press internationally has raised the question of the use of these repressive legal procedures against Carlos Ghosn, former head of Nissan and one of their own, there has been no coverage of their use against trade union activists.
The union has been targeted by the major construction companies (General Contractors) and the cement bosses because it has successfully defended the wages and working conditions of its members and forced them to raise the price of cement throughout the Kansai area. The union has also taken a radical political stance of vigorously opposing the policies of the Abe government.
The arrests were preceded by a concerted campaign of union busting by the bosses. A section of the Ready Mixed Concrete employers have close links to Zaitokukai -a racist group known for its attacks on Korean residents in Japan - and other right-wing elements. A campaign of slander against the union was conducted on the internet by these groups. Articles attacking the union as an extremist organisation with links to North Korea, as well as attacks on the allegedly high wages of cement truck drivers, have appeared in the scurrilous weekly magazines.
On 22January, last year, a group of directors of the employers’ co-op, accompanied by around 20 members of rightist groups, invaded the union offices. While the directors waited in the car park, the right-wing activists tried to enter the building, demanding to see the union leadership. Three union members blocked the entrance to the office. One of them was assaulted by a right winger and police were called, but none of the rightists was arrested.
Legal assault on union
This was the background to the legal assault on the union. The police have used allegations of racketeering, obstruction of business, extortion and alleged threats of violence to justify the repression of the union. They are all based on a web of lies.
Union activities are supposed to be protected by the trade union law and the constitution, which give legal protection against precisely these kinds of claims by employers. However, Rentai Roso is unusual for Japan in that it is an industrial rather than enterprise-based union. It organises cement truck drivers employed at many different cement companies. For example, it conducts negotiations with an employers’ co-op of some 164 cement companies.
The arrests were launched in response to a strike by the union. Because it is an industrial union, it put up picket lines and conducted leafletting and health-and-safety compliance campaigns against companies where it has no union members. The police and employers are using this to claim that these actions were not protected by trade union law. This is despite the fact that the law itself recognises industrial unions and this union is legally recognised. Mere verbal threats made during collective bargaining talks such as: “You’ll regret it if you do that!” have been interpreted as threats of physical violence. Activists have been arrested simply for leafletting although it is an activity clearly protected by trade union law.
While the arrests and jailings have hindered the union’s activities, a new layer of activists have stepped up to the challenge it poses and are organising an energetic campaign for the release of their comrades. They have received support from other trade unions, and the most radical of the three national federations Zenrokyo. Other unions and trade union activists see these attacks as a test run for attacks on all of the more militant unions, especially those that are attempting to build on an industrial basis.
Pickets are held every Saturday outside Osaka prefectural police headquarters and union supporters are turning up to court hearings to support the accused. Unfortunately, none of the leftist parties with representatives in the Diet (parliament) has raised the issue there. It has received little coverage in the Japanese press. Activists are hoping that by getting coverage in internationally, they will be able to break the silence in the Japanese media.
It is not only labour unions that are under threat. Activists in the anti-nuclear power movement and the struggles against military bases, like those against Henoko in Okinawa fear that laws of conspiracy and organised crime will be used against them.
A “Committee to Stop the Suppression of Labour Unions” has been established and the All Japan Dockworkers Union Osaka Branch is acting as the trustee for donations to support the legal expenses and bail for those arrested. Messages of support can be sent in English via the General Union, which will translate messages into Japanese (http://www.generalunion.org/featured/82-english-root/other/2134-special-appeal-and-request-for-support)
• For the dropping of all charges against and release of all those arrested.
• For the right of access to legal assistance from the moment of arrest.
• Defend the right to organise and strike and the legal protections for union activities included in the Constitution and the Labour Law.
• No to Abe’s conspiracy law which will mean further repression of unions, citizens groups and all those opposed to the policies of the government
• For fighting unions independent of management. Organise the unorganised! For industry-wide struggles, to organise irregular workers and workers in small and medium-sized enterprises.
• Fight to change the present big business-dominated politics.
• For fighting unions and citizens groups to stand candidates against the representatives of business to lay the basis for a new party that fights to defend the interests of labour against the rule of the big companies.