Tokyo Foreign Workers’ union splits in two.

Associates tell me that the Foreign Workers Caucus (FWC) of Tokyo NAMBU split into two pieces at their Sunday annual meeting, with seven of the locals and an unspecified number of individual members joining a new union.

It sounds like the larger locals of FWC, however, did not break from NAMBU-FWC, and so it isn’t clear what the new group, Tozen, represents.

A bit of background: from what I’ve been told, there was a union activist named Watanabe who was involved some years back in the National Union of General Workers–which is basically the railroad and highway workers in Japan, but does also include some other what we used to call “blue collar” occupations. Watanabe thought it would be a good idea to organize foreign teachers around Kantou, since teaching does have its employment hazards. Even though it is not physically dangerous, it can be a risky occupation because it involves interacting with people, and usually people who come and go. And expressing ideas that may or may not be accepted.

Additionally, for the non-teaching foreign population here, it’s very easy to find yourself on the short-end of a bargaining stick in a job situation. Japan tends to weakly enforce its labor laws, and particularly when it involves someone from a foreign country.

“Nambu” simply means Southern Branch. It is the National Union of General Workers, Southern branch. And the Foreign Workers Caucus was yet another subset of that branch.

So the Foreign Workers Caucus of Nambu came to be, and has been a quirky presence in the English language newspapers and in the internet expat community. Watanabe left the organization, and Louis Carlet became the name associated with the group.

My guess is that the actual number of Nambu FWCers is really no more than 500, of which 50 or 60 are ordinarily active, and probably 30 are fully paid up on dues. When I had taught Eikaiwa, I had been in the group for a while. There were many knowledgeable people in it about things like Japanese labor law (what I call Real Rule labor law), but overall there was a certain eccentricity about it that I would compare to, well, a contemporary Episcopal Church parish in many ways.

For example, there was a tendency for people to bring their own agendas and then try to impose those agendas on the rest of group. Meetings were gab fests, sometimes even descending to alpha dog games of who could talk over who. It was clear that one of the things of value in the association was access to labor lawyers, and so the people who got executive positions (and there were an insane number of these, like 12, for a group of max 60 people) also got the legal resources, by and large.

Some people thought their value was simply as rent-a-mob types for outside-the-door protests, which were of little strategic significance anyway. So that is, they didn’t pay dues; their mere presence was the contribution.

Most dinners I went to, I got stuck with more than my share of the bill, which told me something about how the “solidarity” worked and the people’s feeling of how serious or not serious the union wanted itself to be. Overgrown adolescence is one of the least becoming attributes of 40- and even 50-somethings. (No offense to genuine adolescents.)

On the plus side, like I said, there were some very knowledgeable people, and some great ones who believed in the ideas of a united association meant to help people secure acceptable working conditions and lend an element of fairness to the workplace, and make sure the labor laws are carried out.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of whatever caused the split between Nambu FWC and the new Tozen, I have a feeling it[‘]s more of the same, and I’m concerned that the internecine battles and the antics aren’t taking away from more important work of a labor union of foreigners.

Here’s hoping that when the dust settles there is an agenda that looks a little bit more like this:

1) The idea of organizing transients is extremely silly. Yet the FWC would waste its time making an effort for people who were only marginally connected with staying in Japan. For example, the resources expended when Nova went bankrupt in 2007. Sure, helping people is a very noble thing, but it left people with the impression that the foreigners union is the place you go and run to when you have some kind of career crisis. “And then, these suckers will try to help you out!” like that. Meanwhile, the FWC says, “oh boy look at all the people we had contact with!” even though it didn’t advance the agenda of improved working conditions for the actual members of the union not one iota.

Things that are just charity work really need to be labelled as such and treated as such. Everyone should have the understanding that it’s just a kind-hearted, voluntary undertaking of the union that shows it’s a class act. NOT “in order to show it’s a class act”—it doesn’t have to prove anything. It’s a voluntary association and the people who come knocking on the door (or calling) when there is a sudden problem in their career are really calling too late.

“But it promotes the union!” No, it doesn’t. It makes the union look like a group of suckers to be called on if need be the case.

2) For the life of me, I’ve never been able to figure out why a Foreign Workers Caucus does not have extremely strong ties with labor affiliates in every country where the people come from. I don’t know why they haven’t beaten a path to every Congressman back home. And why they don’t have routine contact with the Embassy.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan has routine contact with the Embassy. Let the Embassy tell you that “they don’t get involved in labor issues” and ask them why they are so keen on involving themselves with business issues instead. As a worker, you’ll be made to feel like you just showed up here, and, well, what are you doing here? How come the American Chamber of Commerce isn’t equally being told, “hey, you decided to do business in this country, and your concerns are really something that we as the Embassy cannot address!” Why? Because the ACCJ will proceed to say, hey, diplomat, we pay your salary. And beat a path back to Congress and the Administration. Why can’t a union do that?

Especially about this God-awful, perennial dispute about social insurances. Now, Japan is treaty bound to these items, which means the Embassy has no excuse not to listen. Yet, five years later, is there an American committee present in Tokyo to address this? No. No. Why? Because the union was organizing “lessons for food in the park” at the height of the Nova bankruptcy.

Once you make it clear that Real Rule items will be pursued, with no excuses accepted, you become much more serious as a force. Even if you are just 30 people. It must be a consistent message.

3) Shit costs money. If you’re not going to create an effective lobbying unit within your group, you are instead going to be shelling out money for legal disputes that could just have well have been handled through administrative remedies, which is what the Labor Standards Office people are supposed to be getting paid to resolve. But what I’ve ever seen is that the effort to pressure the administration is diverted to the inevitable lawsuits, where the lawyer has to be paid.

What I gather from an e-mail that the breakaway group had put out, is that they voted themselves a budget while they were still in FWC, and then proceeded to leave FWC with the money.

Sixth Annual Nambu FWC Convention

As many of you know, yesterday a majority of Nambu FWC local unions, most individual FWC members and all FWC executives left Nambu and formed a new union, Tozen. Each local had carefully debated and decided by direct, secret ballot vote. Of the few remaining Nambu FWC locals, one — UTU, decided that at this point there is not compelling reason to leave. The other FWC locals — Begunto, Nichibei, Kanda Gaigo, and Sophia — have yet to vote either way so they remain at least for now in Nambu.

Hours before the historic breakaway, these separatists attended the Nambu FWC annual convention since they still technically belonged to Nambu. The separatists greatly outnumbered the Nambu loyalists and undecided combined. Naturally, there was some healthy debate between the two sides. It was pointed out that some separating locals were in arrears for FWC fees.

Also, a budget was proposed that included financial support for three locals currently involved in court cases — ALT Branch, Linguaphone and Simul. This proposal drew criticism because all three locals were among the locals about to leave Nambu and thus Nambu FWC. The point was that the FWC should give aid only to locals intending to stay.

Countering this argument, the separatists noted that FWC money belongs to all 11 locals and that if we split, we should split the assets as well in a proportionally fair manner. Also it was noted that the combined donation to the three locals would be many times smaller than that provided to Begunto to defray legal costs and that Nambu FWC has donated to outside groups before.

As I understand it, Japanese administrative remedies are supposed to take care of practically all labor concerns. If, for some reason, the Japanese have a problem about honoring the black letter law–as they from time-to-time do (see Futenma)–then home governments should know before the suing begins. There is a bunch of stuff that should happen before the suing begins. Yet the preferred remedy seems to be the lawsuit.

The lawyer wants to be paid. (I know I would.) So the idea that the union is a big collective brotherhood and sisterhood when the cash is getting raised, but becomes a grab-fest when the fight breaks out, makes the union look silly. Parties who come to the union with a litigation agenda should be prepared to pony up. Parties in it who have not exhausted all the remedies including having beaten a path to every foreign “ko-ne” (connection) also ought to individually pony up.

Why? Because shit costs money.

If either of the two remaining groups would adopt just these three action items, foreigner unionism in Tokyo would be 10 times improved.