Rengo Convention / How Can Confederation Move Forward in Light of ‘Weak’ Opposition Parties?

The Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) is in a difficult position following a split among the opposition parties that it has supported for many years. The organization now faces the question of whether it can rally the non-Liberal Democratic Party and non-communist forces by marshaling the labor unions under its wing.

During a recent regular convention, Rengo decided to retain Tomoko Yoshino as president. Yoshino, now slated to serve a second term, said in a speech that her aim is to unite the political forces that will play a role in establishing a two-party system.

However, it will likely prove difficult for Yoshino to persuade Rengo members to get behind a single party before the next House of Representatives election.

Rengo was established in 1989 through the merger of public-sector labor unions affiliated with the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan (Sohyo) and private-sector labor unions affiliated with the Japanese Confederation of Labor (Domei), among other groups.

Rengo played a key role in bringing the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan into power. But following the 2017 breakup of the Democratic Party — the DPJ’s successor — Rengo split into two camps: Sohyo-related unions that backed the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), and Domei-related unions that endorsed the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP).

The CDPJ, which has struggled in recent years, has tried to compensate for its lack of strength by cooperating with the Japanese Communist Party. The DPFP, too, has floundered in terms of expanding support.

The political realm lacks tension when opposition parties are weak. Yoshino could help create an environment in which the CDPJ and the DPFP work together to address this situation.

The LDP has been drawing closer to Rengo. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attended the recent Rengo convention and expressed a desire to achieve sustained wage increases in cooperation with the organization. Kishida’s attendance at a Rengo regular convention marked the first time in 16 years for an LDP prime minister to be there.

As part of a Cabinet reshuffle in September, Kishida appointed a former House of Councillors member from the DPFP to serve as a wages-and-employment advisor to the prime minister. Some observers say this may be a prelude to the formation of a three-way government in which the DPFP joins the LDP-Komeito coalition.

Four major industrial federations that support the DPFP — the Confederation of Japan Automobile Workers’ Unions, the Federation of Electric Power Related Industry Worker’s Unions of Japan, the Japanese Electrical Electronic and Information Union and UA Zensen — can collectively muster 1 million votes. It seems the LDP is eyeing this organized support.

However, if the DPFP joins the coalition government, Rengo could split.

Rengo’s organizational strength has declined significantly. The confederation currently has about 6.8 million members, down more than 1 million from its peak figure. Furthermore, members of the Domei-related industrial federations are increasingly turning toward the LDP.

In recent years, LDP-led administrations have promoted work-style reforms. “Government-initiated” shunto spring labor wage negotiations — in which the government calls on the business community to increase wages — have taken root. There is likely a growing awareness among union members that they can count on the LDP.

To regain its vigor, Rengo needs to return to its roots as a centralized national hub for labor unions. It is crucial for Rengo to work steadily toward such goals as wage hikes for workers at small and midsize companies and the improvement of non-regular employees’ working conditions.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 7, 2023)