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Abe Government Attempts to Smash Labor Union in Kansai

SNA (Tokyo) — Largely ignored by the mainstream media, the Abe government has been engaged for several years in one of the most aggressive and unconstitutional efforts to smash a small industrial labor union in Japan’s Kansai region, including mass arrests of union members.

The full name of the union in question is the Kansai District Ready-Mixed Concrete Branch of the All Japan Construction and Transport Workers Solidarity Union, but it sometimes goes by the shorter name “Kannama” for simplicity’s sake.

Kannama is among the minority of Japanese unions that is an industrial union, not the in-house union of a single company, and its members consist of workers inside ready-mixed concrete plants and the drivers of the concrete trucks who transport the wet concrete to construction sites throughout the Kansai region.

The tumultuous history of the Kannama traces back to 1965, but the current story begins in 2015 when the union had about 1,500 members and was beginning to exercise a significant influence within the Kansai construction industry.

The key structural issue was that the ready-mixed concrete firms are run as dozens of small- and medium-sized businesses, traditionally at a great disadvantage between the large corporations that produce the concrete and the large corporations that serve as general contractors for building sites. Competition between ready-mixed concrete firms kept their prices low with small profit margins.

Naturally, when Kannama demanded higher wages and better protections for its union members, the companies could claim, quite plausibly, that they simply had no money to meet their demands.

The solution, which came about in July 2015, was that Kannama helped the companies form their own unified industry group under the auspices of the Osaka Wide-Area Ready-Mix Concrete Cooperative Association, which was then able to negotiate collectively against the giant general contractors and thus raise their rates dramatically. Indeed, the prices they were able to charge for ready-mixed concrete jumped by about 2.5 times over the previous levels.

But this is when events began to occur that Kannama regarded as a betrayal. Having helped the employers gain a windfall from the new solidarity, they refused to pass on any of their new profits to the workers, keeping wages at about the same levels.

As relations broke down after months of fruitless negotiations, Kannama began to engage in strikes and other actions to improve the lot of the workers.

Kannama’s most controversial action came in December 2017 when they held a five-day strike against a ready-mixed concrete firm that didn’t include any of its union members.

Kannama General-Secretary Yoichi Take explained to Shingetsu News Agency in an exclusive interview that union members placed themselves at the front gates of the company and called to the concrete truck drivers as they passed, encouraging them to join the union and the strike. The road was not blocked and there was no violence on any side, just calling out and trying to distribute fliers.

For the authorities, this appears to have crossed some kind of political red line, though it violated no Japanese law and labor union activities are protected by the Constitution. Nevertheless, some seem to have found it outrageous that Kannama should conduct a strike outside a firm where it had no existing presence.

This is when the serious repression began. Soon police and prosecutors began mass arrests of both rank-and-file union members and top union executives. They were hit with legal charges such as “forcible obstruction of business” and “extortion.”

Kannama Chairman Kenichi Take was arrested on August 28, 2018, and a year and a half later he remains in detention as various prefectural prosecutors pile up charge after charge to keep him behind bars. In total, 57 union members spent at least some time under arrest and in police custody.

Union efforts to ensure companies meet safety and sanitation standards were claimed to be an illegal obstruction of business. Kannama passing out union its fliers has met the same accusation.

As the National Trade Union Council (Osaka) observed in November 2018, “If unions cannot press an employer in collective bargaining and cannot exercise their right to act collectively against an employer who ignores the workers’ demands, this is tantamount to declaring that unions must stop being unions.”

Moreover, some of Kannama’s members were fired from their jobs, and others denied work opportunities unless they left the union. Both union members and their families were subjected to verbal threats. In Wakayama Prefecture, the union office was visited by yakuza who issued threats against union leaders. When Kannama reported these threats to police, it was made clear that the law enforcement authorities would offer them no help.

Since the repression began in 2018, union membership fell by almost half, from about 1,500 members to about 800 members currently.

Yoichi Take notes that there were past efforts to pressure Kannama, but what they are experiencing in this round is something entirely new: “The repression we have faced this time is clearly aimed at crushing the union altogether.”

Take does not believe that police and prosecutors across the Kansai region decided on their own initiative to try to crush Kannama, but that there are much larger political and economic forces behind them.

On the economic side, he believes that the authorities want to smash Kannama because its role in strengthening the bargaining position of the ready-mixed concrete firms vis-a-vis the large general contractors is an industrial model they are desperate not to see introduced into the larger Kanto region.

In political terms, Kannama takes a whole host of leftwing stances that antagonize the Abe government, such as strong support for the anti-base movement in Okinawa.

Moreover, many Kannama union members are ethnic Koreans, and the union conducts regular exchanges with both North Korea and South Korea, including mutual campaign support with some South Korean labor unions. Activities such as these have led to the portrayal of Kannama within rightwing social media as the mere agents of North Korea.

Yoichi Take believes that the pummeling his union has taken was directed from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself, though of course there is no direct evidence to verify his claim. Kannama’s chairman and vice-chairman remain in long-term detention, and the union and its allies are demanding that they be released.

Take himself seems confident about the outcome, concluding our interview with a smile and the declaration, “The powerful and the capitalists are trying to smash us, but we will not disappear!”

The author would like to thank the General Union for assisting our coverage of this complex story, both in the previous work they have done and in arranging the crucial interview with Yoichi Take.

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