New Jersey-based Berlitz seeking to bust a teachers’ union in Japan

Japan Times coverage

This one is heartbreaking.

Berlitz down in Princeton is a subsidiary of a Japanese-owned firm called Benesse. Berlitz is known around the world for providing language education training, and has a good reputation for it going back through the 20th century.

(By the way, I think the Berlitz headquarters are in those corporate buildings in the zone that’s a jumble of office parks between Route 1 and the Princeton Junction station. West Windsor side.)

The other day I mentioned how English teaching in Japan is unregulated and in a sense, a risky profession. There is no assurance of job security. And, in a related sense, resentment of the West and particularly our victory in World War II still hang over the people who could regulate the industry.

What happened in Japan is that, as ever-shadier English companies appeared on the scene throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s, the teachers in the Japan Berlitz decided to band together to form a union and protect the working conditions that they still had.

In Japan, being a union member per se is very easy—courtesy of the MacArthur and the Allied Occupation. It is just a matter of finding a union to join and signing up. Like this one, linked here. The General Headquarters members who advised the Japanese government during the Occupation took the American Wagner Act as a model. Historians of unions know that the 1935 Wagner Act was much more favorable to starting and maintaining unions than the “reform effort” Taft-Hartley Act of 1949, passed over Truman’s veto and the main legislative influence in American labor law today!

Here, ideally, you want to declare this status with your employer and get an acknowledgment. But in reality, this puts one’s job on the line. So many union members keep it a secret.

The groups that really have the numbers and the gumption, they let management know that they are a collective bargaining unit and want to be recognized as such. Under the Occupation era law, the management of a company is supposed to bargain with the collective unit.

But in reality—as with so many Allied reforms—the later Japanese governments saw this as an opportunity to spite the laws that their own ancestors agreed to with us in the late 1940’s. (And when unionism in America is so weak, hey, who is to argue?)

So as a practical matter, what happens is that manufacturing unions that have a close relationship with management are tolerated. Public service and transportation unions are acknowledged and given some deference. And any other kind of union is tried to be stamped out.

Any union that involves foreign people is going to be seen as a particular threat. Not only because it is a check on abusive treatment by Japanese, but additionally it accords the foreign person a certain job-status here that the ruling party is philosophically against.

It’s hard for Americans to conceive this, but we are smiled at and then laughed at and used behind our backs. That’s the Liberal Democratic Party or “Jimintou” which has ruled Japan since 1955.

What happened with the Berlitz people is that they did get enough teachers together in 1995 to make a union. And for quite some time the company worked in harmony with it. Because, frankly, I think it was very big or had the potential to be.

But as these renegade “Eikaiwa (i.e. English conversation)” schools began to open throughout Japan, a more established firm like Berlitz sought to respond to the changing conditions.

And what they did was freeze salaries for about 15 years. And try to cut benefits and otherwise bid down the cost of their labor (the instructors) to be what these back-packer kids from Australia, Canada, or England would be willing to work for on a one-year holiday visa.

By the time the market was glutted in 2006-07, the Berlitz unionists began to strike. They would do “rolling strikes”. So they didn’t just declare themselves unavailable for a stretch of time. They would call strikes at intervals. Management at Berlitz never knew when the strike would happen.

And so it was very difficult to organize strike breakers or scabs to fill in for classes where the striking teacher suddenly didn’t show.

This was a very effective strategy, and in fact quite successful at getting management’s attention.

The demands were simple: a 4.6% salary increase (the first in 15 years!) and enrollment in Japan social insurance. The regular readers of me back home would be surprised to learn that in Japan you basically have to negotiate whether your company will pay in to social security. Can you imagine? You go to a job, and it’s “Well, are you going to pay my FICA? Well, are you going to pay for health insurance? And what about unemployment?”

Everything has to be negotiated separately for many, many jobs. It’s like a third world banana republic. A high-technology banana republic.

So a lot of union activity in Japan is based on 19th century things like do I get a basic pension, and unemployment, and a cost-of-living.

With Berlitz Japan, these meager demands were a little too much! So they decided that the top unionists should be sued for the equivalent of $1 million a piece! Unspecified damages. (Berlitz does not say how they determined the $1 million —- it is a number out of the hat.)

What an embarrassment, that a New Jersey company is involved in this sort of thing. A New Jersey company! One that was home of John Basilone and on the right side of World War Two!

I am surprised that no one in the New Jersey talk radio media has picked up on this one. Union busting of foreigner unions in Japan, made up primarily of members from countries that won World War Two.

The guys running Benesse (you remember, the Japanese bought Berlitz), these guys were probably being fed milk that was sent in by General MacArthur in 1945 or ’46. After the Japanese lost the war, they didn’t have any food. So we had to arrange, at our own expense, to get them food so they didn’t starve.

Washington instructed MacArthur not to be sympathetic to the plight here in Japan. But MacArthur ignored Washington and made sure he could get in whatever food for the defeated Japanese he could—he was here and so he rightly felt he knew the situation better. In fact, one of the first general orders of GHQ (MacArthur headquarters) was no assaults on the Japanese people, and no eating their food (since they had so little).

I think what Benesse is doing, by suing these kids for $1 million a piece (some aren’t even kids), is a spit in the face of America.

Benesse is no doubt benefitting tremendously from a U.S. incorporation in either Delaware or New Jersey. They probably have a way to shelter all their tax obligation to Uncle Sam. They probably have sophisticated arguments of getting around our EEO laws (equal employment opportunity). And I know for a fact that they have recently picked up at least $16 million on no-bid contracts with the U.S. federal government.

But when it comes time to honoring the principles that their ancestors agreed to with us in the late 1940’s, these stingy businessmen turn a blind eye. Take our money, take our benefit of military protection and trade relations, and then spit in our faces.

This is not all the Japanese. Like I have said, the vast majority of Japanese are really nice people. This is handful that operate in the open, but in a sense, in the shadows, because American media never reports on them.

What American media think is interesting are these stories about the Japanese hostess industry, at best.

Usually it is more the social-curiosity story like the costumes that your can fold out and hide in as if you were a vending machine. (In case you think you are being followed!) I have never seen this in Tokyo and frankly I think it is some asinine oddball thing.

Most news I read about here that’s produced at home, I really wonder if the reporter stayed overnight sometimes.

Berlitz has no business entertaining intimidation lawsuits against union members who are only exercising the rights provided in the 1947 Japanese Constitution and enabling laws.

The fact that this litigation was not pulled earlier is of great concern.

If anyone back in New Jersey knows anyone at the Berlitz Headquaters, or talks to Congressman Rush Holt (whose office is around the corner from Berlitz Headquarters), ask them what’s going on.